“Are you upside down?” my husband gently asked. I stared out the window, my eyes uncertain if they wanted to glaze over and let the trees and the buildings blend together in a green-grey streak as we passed them, or if they wanted to linger on one spot and pull my focus behind me over and over again.
“I think so? Maybe?” I wasn’t saying much because I had just discovered speaking made the lump in my throat rise and push tears out of my face. I didn’t have time for that. I was going to work. Best play the eyeballs/windows game and stay quiet.
It’s hard to know if you’re having an epiphany or a breakdown. Apparently.
It didn’t start this way. I just went to see a show.
The night before, I experienced an actual-factual achievement in Chicago theater. I was lucky to witness it, to see everyone performing at the top of their game. It was a gorgeous moment for my hometown and my craft.
After we said our hellos and goodbyes and stood for 65 real minutes while they vacuumed the lobby around us (we’re the midwest and our goodbyes are as long as our winters), we went out to chat and celebrate. We went out to dish and to laugh and ask our successful-as-hell director friend who helmed this theatrical triumph to join us on a project and yay she’s in that works who wants fries sounds like a plan.
It’s a good night. I take two sips of my beer. My whole body responds.
“I’d stop there if I were you. And I am. So.”
The next hour is my head, stomach, and insides swimming. I’m reeling from strong-smelling pepper from a pile of wings at the table next to me and my the equilibrium has started a floor routine. I’m suddenly bloated like my body wants to relive the labor I was in 7 years prior with my daughter. What the actual fuck was all of this?
I breathe. I drink a lot of water. I listen. I pretend everything is fine. It’s a good night.
I think about how I should be home with my kid. She’s asleep, but I’ve been so busy in the days leading up to her birthday that I see spare minutes as things to cram work and meetings into. I don’t have enough time. I have deadlines and invoices to send and just when exactly am I going to stop all that and take her to a nature preserve or enroll her in music classes? Can’t I just be all the other moms I know on social media? She’s the best and deserves so much better than - ooof. My stomach again. How is it bigger? Am I going to burst?
My actor friend is talking to our director friend about the Rooms We Cannot Get Into. How happy we are for all our other friends’ successes, but why can’t we even get into the damn room? How do we revel in the achievements of our loved ones while also kicking dirt at being denied the same opportunities? This is something I believe I can contribute to, right? I can say something here. But then I realize…these are people who work at The Goodman and Chicago Shakes. Who are on prime time TV, who are repped by Big Agencies, who have awards and own homes and union cards. There are rooms THEY can’t get into?
I have none of those things. I work on the fringes. The “nobody who knows somebody,” I reductively title myself. If you want a break from the wildly successful thing you’re doing to experiment with some shit, you call me. You want to branch out and never return to that branch, you collaborate with me. We’ll be great pals when it’s over, and you’ll go back to your regular stuff. I have nothing to add to this conversation. I don’t know the names, the people in charge, or the reason to know them. I’m from this city, and I’ve been in theater here for over half my life. Why did I suddenly know nothing? Was it always like this?
If this sounds incredibly self pitying, it wasn’t at the time. It was an honest assessment, and I knew I had to decide how I felt about it.
On the way home, I was struck by the idea that I had worked for decades in small circles. Being cast by friends, and not always in the best shows. My friends, my peers, my colleagues: they’re all climbing as they damn well should. But where on earth was I ? I was…nowhere. Not behind, not ahead, just…in limbo. My friend and writing partner instantly jumped into Fix It mode.
“Well the only reason I got X was because Y was there. The only reason A happened was because of B.”
She started about five sentences this way. She was defending her own success. Minimizing it. Making it about sheer luck and who she knows, as though that’s not what life is: a series of run-ins and events and who you know. In this business, you still have to back it up with talent. X doesn’t happen if Y sees you in A and you suck. She was making her entire VERY successful career a small series of coincidences so I would feel better. No one should have to do that. Not for anyone.
“Everyone knows someone. That’s how we all get places,” I say, waving this off.
“Well, you had a baby,” she offers as an explanation for my stalled and free-floating career.
This line is very familiar to me. More people are willing to allow you to disappear from Earth if you have a kid. They expect it. Didn’t see a movie? It’s because of you had a kid. Didn’t call anyone for weeks? Kid. Didn’t make your career move? Kid. Afraid of heights? Kid. Itchy scalp? Kid.
You aren’t allowed regular-person anxiety or difficulties. You cease to be. It’s all because you had a child. When you DO actually do things, they credit your resolve for your performance “even with a kid.” I am often introduced as a mother before a writer or performer. I hate it. I never hear my father friends strapped with these descriptors or reasons for not moving up.
“I worked the entire time. I never stopped.”
“Of course you stopped.”
“I produced shows and kept performing. I did a shows when I was pregnant. I did two shows back to back that went from her age two to age four. I never stopped. But I’m invisible when I hustle my ass off, because I don’t operate on the same plane as you. You think you see me, but you don’t. I’m not where you are. You assumed I stopped because I’m not in those rooms.”
Silence. The night wasn’t going so well now.
From there, she tried the tricks at the bottom of her comfort bag: my friendships were successes. My one-off live lit performances. If only I could see all that I had accomplished, surely this would pass.
It’s a natural reaction. We want to fix it when we see someone we love being hard on themselves. There is absolutely no response that will comfort someone facing their own career path. No platitude can guide someone who’s weighing the blood, sweat, and tears of literal body-breaking work against her current position.
Still, though, you’re in the car with them. You’re gonna say something. I mean. Jesus, we aren’t monsters.
The thing that struck me about this particular revelation was that I wasn’t belittling myself or any of my accomplishments. I simply noticed that I am VERY often in a room with people who are talking about Big Deal Problems (being on set, big theater contracts, pilot auditions), and I suddenly realize I have nothing to contribute.
I am a hanger-on. I’m friends with people who do big stuff, I told her. And that left me sobered and shaken.
Finally, she asked me what I wanted to do about that. Out of all the things to ask in the stifling air of midlife career crisis, this is the one question with a bit of oxygen.
The breath comes with the answer: I don’t know. I cannot choose, and I never could.
I won’t choose because I love it all, and I worry that indecisiveness has made me mediocre at best in all that I do. So I don’t reach.
I wait. While I wait, I create. I write, I produce, I act, but it’s all…while I wait. For someone to notice. I’m working, but not extending.
And then I get sad when the nothing reaches for me.
I crawl into bed with my soon-to-be-seven-year-old and I hold her tight. In the morning, I awake slightly dizzy but potentially better. Until the nausea washes over me again.
The spiraling started soon after.
Every wrinkle looked new - a result of poor life choices. I need more water, better products, more rest. I’ll be late to work. I have to get groceries and we don’y have enough money, which is why I ‘m going to work - too bad I’ll be fired from this job I don’t want. The job I have because I couldn’t make a career stable enough out of my art. Not…ya know…we don’t value artists enough to pay them a living wage (which is TRUE), but that I failed at it.
I’ve gained weight. But why are you so concerned about weight when it means you’re using the same standards now as you did in your 20s for desirability? They’re dated and harmful. Also, you should look better for all this worry. I’m aging into nothing, into more invisibility and oh god stop this now you need to be present with your daughter it’s her birthday.
So I tune in. I change my focus and I let her love me and us and I love her right back with all I have.
The anxiety didn’t leave, though. It just got quiet and waited for me to be quiet. It tightened my throat and let me know that I was selfish to have any feelings about this on HER day about a laughable career and LOOKS? REALLY? What YEAR is it? Do you want her to take after you like this? Do you —
“Are you ok?”
My husband is checking in again, asking if plans should be canceled or things can be moved. It’s his turn for comfort mode. I ask him not to change anything, as it will only add to my worry and my To Do list if we start rearranging things.
I fight sleep at my desk all day. The room looks like a flashback transition, wavy and animated, My eyelids get heavy. I snap them back open, and the worry has lots more room to wander now.
I keep preaching kindness and don’t know how to do it. Has all of this been a waste of my time? Of everyone’s time? What have I done? Will this be how my daughter remembers me?
I breathe. There’s reflux. I swallow it. I hope that stays down. Because too many other things are coming up.
I think of all the good things I tell other people about kindness. I repeat them to myself. I keep it together. When someone asks how my night was, I tell them. It was a good night.