“Oh no,” I whispered under my breath as we walked into the local pizza and arcade place. I saw the sign advertising free face painting from 12:00-3:00 p.m. The plan had been to let the kids play on the climbing structure, get some lunch, and then try a few games so they could bring home plastic crap that would eventually end up in the trash. But there was no way to get around that long window of time with an artist slathering on non-toxic paint available to entice my kids and send my already climbing anxiety into overdrive.
My oldest daughter saw the sign before I could distract her. “Mama! Can I get my face painted?”
Damn it! Who taught her to read? “Probably not,” I told her. “Let’s just focus on the other fun stuff, okay?”
Face paint was not part of my plan. It was not part of what I had mentally prepared myself for when I agreed to take the kids to their favorite location. I shouldn’t have to brace myself for something as simple as a trip to the arcade, but when you have obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, the simplicity is hard to find. The planning, the anticipation, the irritability, and panicky feelings around all three make me a buzzkill parent.
My kids’ happiness comes at my expense. What makes them squeal makes me cringe. Face paint, bubbles, animal balloons, goody bags, bounce castles, and ball pits. I HATE all of it.
I wish I could just enjoy the smiles on their rainbow cat-painted faces and not worry about upcoming tantrums over smudges or the fact that their clothes will end up covered in it. I wish I could relax and savor the fact that we are out of the house. But I worry about where the bathroom is located for the inevitable time when one of my children needs to pee or poop. Because ultimately at least one of my three kids—usually all of them—will need to poop while we are in a public setting. And said pooping location will probably lack toilet paper.
I really wish I could just soak in the fact that they are holding a balloon sword with the pride of a true warrior, but all I can do is wonder how long it will be until the damn thing pops. Because then the tears start. The comparison to not having what their siblings have starts. The potential to have to stand in a long line again becomes very real as does the fact that my child will need to go to the bathroom while waiting on deck for their new balloon.
And then there are the lurking respiratory infections, unknown viral strains, and the very real possibility of fecal matter in, on, and around everything. That ball pit at the arcade? My brain only processes the fact that at least one of my kids—again, probably all three—will be sick in two days’ time. We all know those balls have never been washed. And those tubes and slides they climb and lick their way up and down? I can’t even.
Before you tell me to see a therapist and seek treatment for my OCD and anxiety or encourage me to relax and just savor my kids’ happiness, stop right there. I have been in therapy for 20 years. I have a lovely dose of medications that make my days easier. And I know. I have tremendous guilt about not being able to just enjoy my kids in these moments.
But having OCD and anxiety means I usually see the mess before I see anything else. I don’t see art or imagination; I see my bathroom covered in glitter and paint. I don’t see sandcastles; I see sand on my kitchen floor. I don’t see treasures; I see my floors littered with little toys. I don’t just see clutter and dirt, I feel it. And it sucks.
But you know what? I remind myself that they don’t see it. They don’t feel it. And as much as I hate the tightness in my chest and the 25 played-out scenarios in my brain for all that could go wrong, I won’t let them in on my struggles. Not yet. They are too young to understand mental illness. They are too young to comprehend why mama’s skin crawls every time they suggest a trip to the arcade. They are too self-absorbed to see anything beyond their own painted noses.
And that is the way it should be. As they get older, I will explain why I take medication for something I have tried to control on my own. I will let them know it is not a weakness to seek help for mental illness. I will not allow stigma to continue around this topic.
Until then, know my smile is hiding the pain of a thousand kid’s festivals and arcades I have tolerated and will dread for the foreseeable future. I really wish I could be a buzzkill parent; I wish I had the heart to tell them “no” to all of the things I hate. But I just can’t do it, so I sacrifice my own buzz for theirs.