There’s a myth about relationships that if you don’t reward bad behavior (“Don’t give in to your toddler’s tantrum!” “Don’t fake an orgasm for your lousy-in-bed boyfriend!” “Don’t give in to your mother-in-law’s request for a ten-day Thanksgiving visit!”), the behavior will change. This is an idea we soothe ourselves with when we’re young, or new to a relationship, brimming with optimism, anxious to avoid becoming trapped in disappointing long-term commitments. If we lead properly now, we tell ourselves, with the right carrot and stick, we’ll correct all the messy imperfection and things will be easier.
It’s such a lie. Some guys are crappy lovers, some mothers-in-law apply guilt whether you go or not, toddlers just throw tantrums. There are good reasons not to indulge these people, but that’s different from imagining you can deeply change someone.
Maybe we hold on to this myth to avoid seeing a truth about ourselves. In grade school I left already-signed permission slips at home and missed school trips. Surely next time, I’d think, as I completed busy work in the classroom, I will learn to complete the task. But recently I discovered a stack of thank-you notes unsent five years after I’d written, addressed and stamped them.
Here is an A to Z list of some of my other shortcomings, which have resisted correction, despite ample repetition, attempts to improve, and many embarrassing natural consequences.
Anything involving a calendar
Conference, Parent/Teacher, 8th grade, attending. (This after conferring about the schedule, exchanging multiple planning emails, even discussing it with my kid.)
Every ball sport
Insurance companies—dealing with
Just making an appointment without a lot of agony
Kids’ social activities—coordinating
Long grain rice—making without burning (yes, even in rice cooker)
Oral instructions—giving, following
Period, anticipating arrival of
Quick name recall
Routines—following, changes in
Shoes—wearing (e.g., I visit my folks’ house overnight. My mom gives me a lift into the city, where I live, but drops me off near the appointment she is going to. I exit car and discover I am barefoot. With my overnight bag and child at 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in midtown Manhattan.)
Turning off utilities
Umbrella—bringing, returning with
Weather—checking before leaving house
taX forms. (The night before we close on our home, these words pop into my head: Real Estate Transfer Tax. There is a form. Where would I have put it? It is probably crucial. After furtive ransacking of home, finally, slouching in ashamed self-loathing, I prepare to confess to my husband that we won’t be able to close. The panic is heady and horrible. Suddenly, though, a burst of insight! I dig under the bed for the canvas bag I bring to teach prenatal childbirth classes. In it: resin pelvis, knit uterus, fetus doll, cloth placenta, polyester perineum. And real estate transfer tax form. Obviously.)
Yesterday’s emails, marked as “read”—remembering existence of
Zzzz (any kind of meeting)
No one is good at everything, even with great effort, enticing carrots, and scary sticks. We all know that, but maybe real adulthood is learning to separate these flaws from broader notions of competence. It seemed to me, many years ago, that being in your forties must mean you “had your act together.” Now I think maybe that’s true after all, and my act just doesn’t include keeping track of paper, or umbrellas, or any of those other things.
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