I read this piece in the New York Times called “Why Women Do the Household Worrying” and it spun me off into thinking about the word “worry.”
I like how Ph.D. candidate Allison Daminger uses the term “cognitive load.” That sounds more appropriate given the weight that I can feel about household management and parenthood. I also like how Daminger breaks up the components of “worrying” into categories with sleeker verbs: anticipate, identify, decide, monitor.
Worrying is often relegated to the silly and ridiculous. It’s an activity for the likes of Aunt Pittypat in Gone With The Wind. There’s a clutched handkerchief, a woozy expression, a collapse onto a chaise: “Get the smelling salts!”
But the word “worrying” itself doesn’t sound like the feeling I get when overwhelmed by concerns and plans and tasks and lists. It sounds like a choice, something for people with little else happening on life’s docket. A kind of privileged overthinking, a way to experience drama when you’re incapable of producing it organically. I think of the Anne Tyler’s Searching for Caleb, where the main character’s mother is constantly taking to her bed with illnesses, when she’s not visiting her friends who’ve done the same. In this sense, “worrying” is a phenomenon of the rich and the privileged, a pastime of the coddled. Pegged as not having anything else to do, a worrier’s only avenue is expressing intense-yet-pointless concern for the welfare of others or the minutiae of the world’s complexity.
This is not how I experience “worrying.” I have my privileges, yes. But my “worrying” doesn’t come from an idle place. I am always busy, even when I’m lying on the sofa. I’m calculating when the dogs need to be let out, what I could make for dinner, if we’re out of olive oil, whether I’ve forgotten to switch the laundry out, is my kid flunking anything right now, when was my last Pap smear, should I buy a copy of an ADHD book for Adrian to read since I had to return the library’s copy, what time is my next meeting, is this mole possibly cancer, etc.
A therapist once offered me this generalization:
Anxious people need to slow down. Depressed people need to speed up.
If you know me personally, you know I’m not exactly a physical mover and shaker. The benefits of exercise were only revealed to me later in life; before then, sport and movement focused on the deathless grind toward weight loss, not the pursuit of transporting pleasures.
Slowing my mind is the problem. And it’s not due to lack of input or responsibilities or mandates. Because I’m a whirlwind of “shoulds” and “oughts” and “it’d be good ifs,” I deluge my loved ones with books and ideas and recommendations and the contents of my to-do list. I’ll blanket them with propaganda directly from my Anxiety Headquarters. Many times, I’ll be cuddling with Adrian and I’ll swerve into this type of administrative litany, and he’ll say, “Can we not talk about this stuff right now?”
Adrian is the kind of person who experiences things mainly as “Happening Right Now” or “Happening Later.” So, I’m always ready to counter him: Well. It needs to be discussed at some point!!!
Which is true. There are times to talk strategy. But there are also times to just be. Just being is very hard for me. It’s why I didn’t like playing with my kid when he was little or being a babysitter. It’s why board games often make me fidgety, why I can’t stand jigsaw puzzles. It’s why I miss swimming laps, why I like walking dogs and running and reading: I desperately need singular escape activities. One purpose, one activity, leaving thinking as, just, well. An afterthought.
Sometimes, though, you need a worrier to care for you. Especially if you are a worrier.
In the middle of the night, I’m often awakened by my 12-year-old dog, Pablo. Pablo has always been a worrier. Timid, cautious, conflict-avoiding. He wakes up in the wee hours, panting heavily and changing positions: on the floor, to the sofa, and back. We don’t know why he pants, just as we don’t know why he sometimes barks for no reason: shrill, urgent barks, usually directed at me. The vet believes he could be a) in pain b) having dementia c) both.
There are many things for me to anticipate, identify, decide and monitor when it comes to Pablo. I refer to this cognitive load as me developing a “Grand Unifying Theory of Pablo.” I switch up the medications he takes, and the order he takes them. I add in new CBD products when I come across good reviews. I keep pill pouches and back-up meds in my dresser drawer so I don’t have to stumble downstairs in the dark. I try walking him at different times of day. I plug in nightlights in specific locations, moving them around to see if there’s a difference, not wanting him to wake up and not know where he is. I pull dirty clothes out of my hamper for him to lie on so my scent might make him feel reassured. I massage his neck and back every night before bed, removing his collar so he can stretch out fully. I tell him he’s a good dog. I tell him I love him very much. I sometimes wait until he starts snoring. Sometimes, when I move to leave, he wakes up, and the process starts all over again.
Despite all my efforts, he still wakes me with his panting and fuss-budgeting himself into new positions around the room. So, I throw off my covers and go to him. I slip him a CBD chew or another pill. I rub my fingers between his eyes and down his snout. I massage behind his ears. I let him dip his head into my neck, listen to him harrumph and snort. I murmur to him how I’m here, how I’m going to take of him. He closes his eyes, lays his head down on the throw pillow I’ve positioned for him just so.
I wait, for who knows how long, for as long as it takes. I am there as he sighs and settles and slowly, hopefully, goes back to sleep.
like what I make?