Last night I spent a fruitless hour pretending to read a book, rather than going straight to bed as I promised myself I would. Flicking through pages, I waited for my husband to finish his work and come upstairs. My husband knows that staying up late working, with a glass of wine and a cigarette, isn’t ideal working practice. He knows that it’s a problem and tells me not to worry. But since when did anyone stop worrying when they’re told not to?
At times I worry about my daughter, as she heads into final exams and shudders under the weight of her own expectations, along with the residues of a viral illness which sneak up on her when she wobbles. At a pinch I can add my son to my worry list; only he’s on a long voyage, and besides I prefer thinking to worrying about him. My old aunt, currently living alone without a phone after receiving nuisance calls, also sits high on my list.
When I think back to how my mother must have felt, at the age I am now, I realise that worry was her constant companion. My father had heart problems and my sisters and I gave her plenty to fret about in our teenage years. She played golf and went to the hairdresser, whereas I go to yoga and walk our dog; and all for the same reason, to gain a perspective on family life.
We talk breezily about helping each other, of reaching out and being there for them. I’m sure there are families for whom helping each other is second nature, a simple step; however this hasn’t been my experience. For me it’s been closer to dental work, with my gentle probing being met with outright resistance or a clear rebuff. We can do so little for each other, it seems, particularly those closest to us.
Recently I confided to a friend that my secret definition of family life is of being run over very slowly by the people I love most. She laughed, as did I. It’s not a wildly flattering definition, yet it captures something of the dilemma I sometimes feel at the end of a long day, faced with supper to conjure, souls to buoy, and chores to complete.
I used to think that adult life was like a complicated board game, with rules gleaned as your piece travels round the board. Now that I’ve traveled round the board a few times, I can see my youthful naivety. It’s not that as adults we don’t know what we’re doing – my daughter’s recurring taunt in relation to the muddle that is world politics. As we move round the board, most of us do know what we’re doing. We may keep our hand to ourselves, yet we’re alive to its risks and consequences. It’s more that the pressure we feel under – and what adult doesn’t feel under pressure? – means that our control over our next move on the board is limited.
I worry about the people I love to the degree I can’t do anything for them. The more they defend against my help, indistinguishable to them from interference, the more I worry about them. Or I go to yoga and leave my worries behind in the studio.
Sometimes I think that it would be easier if I could fall back on sympathy, rather than the empathy that I feel for the people I love. It would be easier if I could tell them to pull themselves together – my mother’s familiar refrain – and leave it at that. Sometimes empathy feels like the worse of both worlds – sharing a loved one’s struggles without being able to offer a solution to lift them. Sitting up late while my husband burns the midnight oil – understanding why he might need to do this while also feeling paralysed by my own tiredness – isn’t an ideal end to an evening.
My daughter mocks me when I worry about her brother on the high seas. I’m with her; clearly it’s futile to fret about the path of hurricanes from a hemisphere away. I also realise that at some level my worry about others distracts me from thinking constructively about my own future – from wondering what on earth I’ll do when my family aren’t around for me to worry about. I used to laugh at the idea of worry beads. How could they possibly help? These days I’m on the lookout for a secular equivalent.