The Third Third

A Holiday Role-Reversal

The term “role reversal” usually describes someone our age parenting her parent, the adult child acting in new ways toward a more child-like parent. But the role reversal I experienced over the holidays last year had nothing to do with my parents. It had nothing to do with my own adult children either. It was all my own doing. I’d almost call it as much of a relapse as a role reversal. I totally reverted to the person I used to be when the children were young and when it felt like I was in charge of the world we lived in and all its breakfasts, lunches, dinners, carpools, snacks, games, birthday parties, Christmas gifts, cliques, playgroups, bedtime, entertainment, even moods – the whole state of everyone’s affairs. Actually, I totally reverted to the non-person I used to be, the one who made and accomplished comprehensive lists of things to do, who did it all (because who else was going to do it?), and did it very well. But she’d rarely “come out and play;” she was usually too busy or too tired. In fact, the person I was rarely came out at all, except to perform the role I thought was mine as wife, mother, and daughter. That was the problem: it was just a role. I didn’t know this then. Since the children have grown up and moved out, however, I’ve learned that the world does not come to an end if I forget what’s for dinner or someone’s anniversary. Not even if I miss a doctor’s appointment. Better yet, I’ve discovered this (somewhat stunted) person who can live as well (and considerably less resentfully), by merely being my self and not doing everything. I’ve learned it’s OK to do what I want sometimes – to write right up and through the dinner hour no matter who’s coming home when or duck out to the nail salon instead of the farmers’ market, for example – and that I am a much nicer, more nuanced and sometimes interesting person as a result. Old habits die hard, though. It’s really easy to slip back into the role, especially when the whole family gathers together, as we did over the holidays. It wasn’t my kids’ fault. They’re good and willing shoppers, cooks, cleaner-uppers, gift-givers, gift-wrappers, tree-decorators, menu-planners, and airport picker-uppers. I couldn’t blame my husband either; he was doing his share. I just mentally reverted to the control freak I used to be. I fell asleep making mental lists of the things I had to do, and woke up with jaws sore from grinding my teeth. I demurred when the kids invited me to ski; someone had to make dessert. I fell asleep before they all started playing poker, having insisted on finishing the dishes. Finally, Christmas and New Years were both over. The guests were gone. We’d entertained the neighbors. Suddenly, I felt the weight of the world lift off my shoulders. I felt relieved and I felt – the word was -- Done. Finally, I understood my malaise – I’d been Doing again. The person I was becoming hadn’t been home for the holidays at all. She’d reverted to her old role. And she wasn’t happy – even though it had appeared to be a gloriously wonderful holiday with everyone home, good food, good drink, an engagement, a new boyfriend, and lots of laughter and love. Really. I simply hadn’t been able to enjoy it. Fortunately, I had a few more days to stage a comeback, and I did. I cross-country skied and snow-shoed and ordered pizza and danced to music in the kitchen, played new games, watched horrible TV shows, went to a concert that started at 10, and flew, shrieking, down a sledding hill in an old inner tube. I installed Quicken on my computer, too, and sent whoever was willing to the grocery store. I smiled. I laughed. I lived. And I was happy again. Ah, finally.
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