Why…was it always my responsibility to turn on the stove and begin to think about my family’s food needs, even when I wasn’t hungry? Why couldn’t my husband get the dinner preparations started? Why did my family seem to be almost totally paralyzed when it came to preparing a meal? Why did they all wait in the kitchen, as though unable to set the table or pour a glass of water, until I came into the room and my mere presence announced, “Mom’s here. Now we get to eat?”
Dr. Christiane Northrup, The Wisdom of Menopause
There’s a lot to unpack in this quote, and yes, a lot of the answers to the questions are the same: because you have set up this expectation and/or controlled family life to such a degree that your family is paralyzed in this arena.
If they were to make a move here, you’d come down on them—hard—for every little mistake they make with a nonstop stream of criticism because they’re not doing it your. way. (Hahaha. Me? I don’t know why you’d think I speak from personal experience.)
But as the Pirate King says in Pirates of Penzance, “[W]e waive the point. We do not press it. We look o-o-o-ver it.” (And yes, that was the beginning of me fangirling over Kevin Klein.)
What I want to focus on is Northrup’s implied tone: irritable in the extreme. This tirade resulted from a teenage daughter asking, “What’s for dinner?”
In our house, now that the kids are older, the answer to that is likely to be, “Whatever you make.” When they were at the age when the real answer was never the right one, it was simplified to, “Food.” And I was (usually, not always) able to resist the urge to respond with the grosser versions involving shingles and buns.
I’ve always considered myself to be a fairly even-tempered person, but in my mid 40s, something began to simmer—er, seethe?—below the surface. And occasionally, I would explode.
The day before I read the introduction to Northrup’s book, I had come home from a full day at the office to find the kids off in their own rooms or at practice, my husband lounging against the kitchen counter checking his phone … and the sink full of dishes. From their breakfasts. And his lunch.
And I lost it. I’ll admit it, after working in the restaurant industry, I have a potty mouth. So much so that when one of the kids dropped an F bomb at a fairly tender age, my husband looked coolly at me and said, “I don’t use those words….” Ouch.
But back to our story:
“What the !@#$% is going on here? Why the !@#$% is the sink full of dishes? Why am I the only person who knows how to put them in the dishwasher? Is it really that difficult? I can’t start dinner with the kitchen cluttered this way.”
And I proceeded to slam them into the dishwasher.
My husband could only look at me with his mouth wide open.
“You know,” he finally ventured, “You could take a minute to relax when you come home? I was going to do them after I took a break.”
He was absolutely right. I was the one who liked to have dinner early—the rest of the family didn’t really care. But you can imagine how the story ends….
Suffice it to say, we now have a running joke that when I come home, the dishes are still dripping in the sink or he’s furiously washing them. “Oh, you’re home early?”
I sometimes laugh about getting a nanny-cam so I can see how the sound of the garage door causes him to be launched from his office chair.
No, I didn’t handle that well at all. There are much better ways to get family members to pitch in, ways that don’t involve control, naughty words, and guilt, and that’s one of the topics I cover in Declutter Your Daytimer.
My point is that while extreme irritability felt alien and more than a little scary, letting it surface also felt alien … and more than a little good. And boy, was I relieved to hear that I was not alone.
That little scene took place the day before I started reading Northrup’s book, so you can imagine my reaction to reading the quote above. Speaking of nanny-cam’s did she have one in my kitchen?!?
After a lifetime of “being good”—good girl, good daughter, good student, good girlfriend, good employee, good wife, good mother—it was time to renegotiate what “good” meant.
There are all kinds of reasons—physiological, mental, emotional, spiritual—we may find ourselves increasingly irritable at middle age. To me, it’s fascinating that it happens just as many of our bodies are shutting down the baby factory.
It’s as though we need it to push our babies out of the nest a bit, make them a bit more independent. And yes, in a way, I include spouses in this generalization: when we spend so much time nurturing the little ones in our lives, they also benefit from the cooking, cleaning, and other household management we still tend to hold.
It may not be the most positive of emotions, and we may not express ourselves too gracefully about it … and it is nevertheless a way to create the time and space we need at this age, especially if we have dreams of chasing our own goals once others don’t depend on us quite so much and/or are, as one woman wrote in response to the post on joint pain, “working myself out of my job as stay at home mom.”
Just barely on the other side of this, I’m starting to be able to look at the irritability with curiosity: is it coming up because I’ve fallen back into “being good,” whatever that means?
Leave a comment or reach out by email and let me know whether you noticed an uptick in irritability when you hit your 40s, how it manifested, and how you dealt with it.