Sometimes it takes a tsunami – serious illness, bereavement and grief, or another disaster – to bring us face to face with our own imperfection. And sometimes recognizing our limitations and reaching out to others for help can ultimately empower us.
We’re all familiar with the myth of Superwoman – the belief that women nowadays should be able to do it all, balancing the demands of workplace and family without batting a well-groomed eyelash. In the early nineties, many people called me “Superwoman,” and I admit that I too tended to think of myself that way. I was working full-time-plus as a lawyer, and my husband Daniel was working almost full-time as an engineer. Together, we were parenting seven children. We had a fairly stable balance worked out; whichever of us was free would do whatever needed doing at home, with some help from the older children. Life seemed manageable.
Then an earthquake struck when our fourth daughter, Timora, was diagnosed with leukemia right after her twelfth birthday. Suddenly, one of us needed to be with her in the hospital, physically and emotionally, all day every day. Someone had to take care of the other children, physically and emotionally. And both of us had our work to keep up.
I’ve written a memoir, entitled And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones, about the six-plus of Timora’s illness, and about my emotional, philosophical, and spiritual journey after my world collapsed when she died in 2001. In it, I describe (among many other subjects and themes) how we managed to keep our lives together while Timora was in treatment. It certainly helped that both our workplaces demonstrated great flexibility regarding our work hours. Our older daughters were amazing, staying with Timora in the hospital when they could, often sleeping at her bedside. Our friends and community pitched in as well; we didn’t have to cook at all for the first year, and there were always volunteers whenever we needed errands done.
But no one but Daniel and I could do the most important things for Timora, or for our other children. These overwhelming responsibilities exposed each of our own particular strengths and weaknesses, and I found myself unable, for the first time, to handle certain aspects of my job as a parent. As I write in Twice the Marrow:
“As willing as I was to run around the hospital, the city, or even the country if required to meet Timora’s needs, and to sit by her bedside for long, boring days, there were some parts of the new routine that I wasn’t at all good at. I identified so strongly with her pain or her low mood that I was often unable to keep my perspective. Sometimes, when she felt she couldn’t take it anymore, she’d refuse to take her medications, to allow the nurses to take blood, or otherwise to cooperate in her treatment. At those times, my sympathy for her paralyzed me. Daniel, in contrast, was able to separate himself enough from his empathy to do what had to be done.”
(Daniel discovered some of his limitations, too, as I found it easier than he did to deal with the other children and their increased emotional neediness.)
Almost unbelievably, our family has proved resilient; Daniel and I made it through the inferno of Timora’s illness and death with our marriage strengthened and our relationships with our surviving children closer than ever. What’s more, in the past few years I’ve studied for and embarked on a new career as a psychotherapist, which I find much more satisfying than law.
I’m quite sure that for me, at least, much of this resilience has to do with having learned that I really can’t do everything, and that I can and should count on those around me to do what I can’t do as well. No one is superhuman, after all.