Postcard from the Freeway

RICHARD LOUV

October 16, 1991|By RICHARD LOUV

SAN DIEGO — San Diego. -- I received a letter recently from a woman who signed her name ''J.''

''Three weeks ago,'' she wrote, ''I thought I was having a serious nervous breakdown (not that I would know one if I had one but something was definitely out of control) and in desperation, I tried to work myself through it. Over a five-day period, I mind-dumped into my Dictaphone to and from work daily.''

She explained that, like many hard-driving business folk, she listens to a lot of motivational tapes in her car, ones on coping with stress, getting organized, the supermom syndrome, and on and on. But this time she was the one doing the talking.

On the fifth day, she sat down at her computer, transcribed her notes ''and printed out a rough draft of what was happening to me!!!'' Then she spent six hours organizing the notes, which she attached to the letter. What follows is a summary of the notes:

''Between work time and family time there is no time. It was just not working!!!''

She is married to ''the most wonderful man in the world . . . but both the work world and my home life center around men. Men don't think like women, they don't feel like women. They are biologically different, less nurturing. Yet I tend to look at a man's behavior for reassurance of how things are going . . .

''My work is definitely interfering with my relationship with H [her husband]. He is not getting the nurturing that he needs. My kids aren't getting the nurturing they need.''

She comes home ''irritated, angry, exhausted . . .''

''My husband only gets the time that is left over after work is done, after the kids' needs are met, household needs are met, essential phone calls returned. Having fun is not a screaming priority. Even when I have time to recreate, I find it difficult to figure out what might be fun. I do not enjoy vacations.

''When was the last time I had good sex with H? Oh, a couple of months, years ago! The difficulty in finding time to have sex is compounded by my feelings of inadequacy, guilt about not having it often enough.

''I feel guilty for having surpassed my husband's financial success. My success is disrupting, demanding, isolating and stressful. I can't seem to put my needs into words, therefore I can't communicate them to H. . . .''

She does not blame her husband. She lists what is right about him: He is always home in the evenings and weekends; he does all the grocery shopping; he keeps the house in repair; he gets fast food for the family when they need it; he's flexible; he gets baby sitters. ''I am not single-parenting.''

She feels that she is letting her kids down.

''I want to be with my kids, I don't want to turn around when they are grown and say, Gosh, when did they grow up? But by the time I get home from work, I am wiped slick. I can barely get the dinner on the table, eat dinner, then I just put it in automatic, get the kids bathed and/or into their pajamas (or start laundry), try and make time to sit and read them at least a story (if I don't fall asleep midway) and BOOM, they are off to bed.

''We don't have quality time, just pressure time. Face it, I only have eight days out of every month to handle all the needs of keeping a household. Face it, my kids are growing up without me!

''My life feels chaotic and out of control. There is too much to do and never enough time to do it so I go around feeling that I don't have control and that I'm not working hard enough and that's why I don't have control.''

She lists some of her characteristics at work.

''I try to be a very nice employee. I am people-oriented and nurturing. I have an open-door policy. I let other peoples' needs and problems get in the way of my work. I feel like I'm being good when I work; I'll relax later.

''I don't exercise. I work in the evening, on weekends and I expect others to do the same. I must keep things perfectly in order. I complete perfectly projects that are of little importance. I am never satisfied with anything I do.

''I can't make a mistake. If I say no, I won't get promoted; I'll be seen as a slouch; I'll be making waves. If I don't keep at it all the time I will lose everything I have gained.''

She considers her options. ''A four-day work week? Maybe. I can't quit the job, I'm not going to abandon my children, and I'm not voluntarily going to give up my relationship with my husband!

''I need to establish who is important and what is essential in my life. I don't know whom to ask for help, or what it would take to quit work, but then again I don't want to quit work and find that I am bored.

''If I quit, we would definitely be a lot poorer! I feel if I did quit I would be letting down financially, and letting down people at work who depend on me, who have been good to me. I feel I can't quit my job or go part-time because there is no one to relieve me. There is no one! I feel personally responsible for taking care of them. But at the same time I don't want to let my husband and my kids down.''

OK, OK, so she's not a Kurdish refugee.

Life could be worse. Millions of people would love to have this woman's problems. And yet, how many cars out there (driven by women or men) are steaming up with such pressure? Speaking into her tape recorder, she seems afraid to get off this freeway of stress, terrified of pulling over. Doing so, she feels, would cause a chain-reaction, a pileup . . .

''I don't want to let anybody down! But it is just not working!''

She ends the tape: ''One good thing. I don't have a lot of traffic on the way home from work.''

Richard Louv is the author of ''Childhood's Future: Listening to the American Family.''

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