“Wait. Are you afraid of heights?!”
We are 150 feet in the air when Jenn asks me this question, soaring in giant circles over a beautiful Northern California landscape on the swing ride at Six Flags. She is looking down at my hands, which are currently white-knuckling the sides on my swing.
“Yes!” I shrieked. “Are you not?!”
I was looking out at the landscape through squinted eyes, too scared to take it all in at once. I peeked over at my friend who had flown halfway across the country to spend her birthday with me in California, her hands folded casually in her lap while a delighted smile spanned wide across her relaxed face. No, Jenn is not afraid of heights.
“Why didn’t you tell me you’re afraid of heights?” she asked incredulously as she exploded into uncontrollable laughter at the ridiculous sight of a grown woman, afraid of heights, who had voluntarily signed on for a full day of stomach-churning rollercoasters and heaven-bound swings.
“Isn’t that the point?” I asked in a voice I no longer had control of, part screaming, part laughing, still squinting. “Isn’t that the thrill of it all? To face your fears?”
In the midst of that fear feeling, there is always a conversation between my logical mind and my reactive emotions.
I know I am safe. Sure there’s some risk, but not nearly as much risk as I take on every time I drive on the highway, which is multiple times a day. I know the apparatus I’ve strapped myself into has been carefully engineered and vigilantly tested, and a serious malfunction is so unlikely it would become headline news. I am not actually afraid for my life. I’m just … afraid. It just feels scary, even if I can’t entirely justify the feeling.
And so the conversation between my head and my gut goes back and forth. Reassuring myself that I am safe, but not entirely believing myself.
For someone who is afraid of heights, I have done a lot of nonsensical things. The list includes but is not limited to: Skydiving, parasailing, rock climbing, and a 22-minute ride on the world’s highest gondola.
I was scared during every one of those activities. Viscerally, palpably scared. Rapid heart rate, sweaty palms, knots in my stomach, maybe even a little light headed sometimes. I’ve noticed a funny thing, though: The higher in the air I get, the more the fear the subsides. As I gain distance from the ground, I can distance myself from my fear as well. When I’m still close enough to the earth to hear the voices of the people on the ground, to recognize their faces and make out their movements, I understand exactly how unnatural it is to be suspended in mid-air above them. Once I am high enough that the people turn into specs and the landscape is just an architectural model and all that I can hear is the jangling of my own harness or seat belt or whatever, the truth of where I am doesn’t feel real anymore. It’s a video game, or a simulation, or just a pretty picture to gaze at beneath my feet.
I am scared on the way up, and scared on the way down, but somewhere in the middle, at the literal height of it all, I am blissfully, ignorantly, ridiculously detached.
* * *
I recently went back to full time work after a few years of part time and freelancing gigs, and the transition has been tricky. None of the parenting and household duties have subsided, of course, which leaves me to play a never-ending game of whack-a-mole as I attempt to keep work and kids and school and projects and vacations and health and bank accounts and relationships all in check. I am always behind at something. Late on that new software project at work, forgotten field trip permission slips, fast food dinners, skipped workouts, “hey we need to talk about this” conversations postponed night after night until there is a new pressing issue at hand.
This is exactly the ride I signed up for, this roller coaster of working mom demands, but still it feels scary. Am I spending enough time with my kids? Am I performing well enough at work? Are we eating enough vegetables? Am I monitoring the TV shows closely enough? Will my house ever feel all the way clean? When’s the last time we went out on a date? Am I screwing it all up?
It’s the scariest in the early evening hours, when everything demands my attention. I still need to send that one email to that one client, but also my kids are unpacking their backpacks and shoving papers in my face that need signatures and praise and following up, and also everyone is starving, and there’s an unexpected DMV bill in the mail, and I meant to make a connection with my husband and ask how his day was really but before I could ask he’s asking me what our weekend plans are and that reminds me that I haven’t RSVP’d to that birthday party and at some point I just snap. My six-year-old asks for another snack and I yell at him that dinner will be ready soon and I tell him to get out of the kitchen. He leaves, defeated, and I hate myself.
My heart sinks inside my chest. My breath gets shallow and I blink rapidly as I look around at everything around me that demands some sort of action before I make it to bed that night. I feel competing urges to sink into the couch and put it all off until tomorrow, and to kick everyone out of the house, spring into action, and get it all done as efficiently as possible.
Both urges are ultimately the same. What I want to do is detach.
I want to be able to float above it all without really having to be part of it. To make the dinner without distraction from the people I am making it for. To maintain a marriage without spending precious time and energy on the hard conversations. For the bank account to work itself out without minding the daily line items. For the kids to know how proud I am of them, without having to watch all 87 consecutive attempts at the three-point shot.
How easy it would be, if all I could hear was the jangling of my own safety harness as I looked down on it all.
That’s the thing, though, there is no safety harness on the ride of motherhood. I’ve got to stay close to the ground, close to the mess, forever able to hear it and recognize it and feel part of it. Even when it’s scary. Even when it’s loud. Even when I don’t think the conversation is going to be easy. Even when my heart sinks inside my chest at the sight of my defeated six-year-old walking away from me.
So I push the backpack papers aside and I turn off the stove and go find him sitting on the floor of his room. I apologize for raising my voice, and I explain that I was feeling frustrated about how many things I have to do but that I didn’t handle my frustration well. He nods understandingly. I ask if he’d like to bring a coloring book to the kitchen table while I cook, and he proposes Pokemon cards instead. I accept this deal, even though I know it means I will spend the next 30 minutes pretending to know the names of these ridiculous characters.
Before we get up off the floor, I cup his face in my hands and I ask him if he knows how much I love him. It’s probably bad parenting to make your kid validate your love them, but the truth is that I’m scared he doesn’t always know. I’m scared I’ve blown it again, and I’m scared that I’ll keep blowing it forever. He scrunches his nose and laughs at me. Of course he knows. It’s not exactly a safety harness, but it’s enough.