Monday, November 21, 2016

Review: Leave Me

I stumbled across this book almost by accident, just seeing it while scrolling through my library's app on my phone. I read If I Stay by Forman a few years ago. Confession: I picked it up in a bookstore and speed read the whole thing in one sitting because I didn't actually want to buy the book but the premise was so interesting I wanted to see where it was going.

A similar thing happened with this one. I read the little blurb, and was immediately intrigued. A mother who actually walks away from her unsupportive, ungrateful children and husband? Hm...

(Tangent): The book was only available for download on my phone, not my Kindle. I use my phone to listen to tons of audiobooks, but I've never done an e-book on it before (that's what the official e-reader is for, right?). I thought it would be super annoying reading a whole novel on such a small screen, but surprise, surprise, it wasn't that bad at all. Not that I'm going to switch to exclusively reading e-books on my phone, but it really was convenient, considering I don't *always* have my Kindle with me, but I do always have my phone with me. (End Tangent)

For just some brief context on the plot: Maribeth Klein is a wife, mother of 4 year-old twins, editor at a major magazine, and generally like thousands of other women who are overworked, exhausted, and frazzled. But then Maribeth has a surprise heart attack, and when she feels that her family is annoyed at how long her recovery is taking, she packs a bag, withdraws some cash, and leaves her family.

So I want to freely admit that my first reaction to the mother in this story was disgust, not because I couldn't relate, but precisely because I feel like I'd been in that situation and just viewed it in such an entirely different light and context that I couldn't even imagine making the same choice Maribeth made.

Okay, so not the same situation. I've never had a heart attack, nor had to recover from open heart surgery. Also, my children have never had lice (at least not yet). But, I have been sick to the point of being utterly unable to care for my children for weeks (months) at a time. My early pregnancy sickness is really quite debilitating. I've been in that super low point of having my four-year-old yell and scream at me to "Just stop being sick, Mom!" while I huddled on the kitchen floor trying to find the energy and strength to get something resembling food together for dinner, but being unable to face the smell of opening the fridge door, and just desperately wanting to not be responsible, to have someone else take care of dinner for both my children and me, then bursting into tears when I get the text from my husband that he got a project dumped on him and wouldn't be home until 11 PM or later (and would likely be swamped for the rest of the week). I've been there, and it is a lonely, miserable, hopeless place to be.

But while I truly felt sorry for myself and indulged in plenty of self-pity, I still had enough perspective to sympathize with how hard this was for my family too. After all, my son was just four. Me being sick all the time was not just an "inconvenience" for him, it was downright scary and destabilizing. I am his rock and foundation, and he was old enough to realize I was not okay, but not old enough to really emotionally cope with it.

My husband, on the other hand, completely understood I needed more help, and he needed to pick up more slack. But it's not like this was a terminal or even chronic illness that would justify a major rearrangement of our life schedule. I would eventually get better, life would eventually go on, and in the meantime he had a job to do, a job that is often demanding and requires long hours. It's hard for him to be an equal and contributing co-parent when I'm in the best of health, and nearly impossible for him to be a solo parent handling the brunt of home responsibilities with his job. My inability to function was a major strain on him. While Maribeth felt nothing but resentment and frustration about her husband's struggle to magically become a single working parent, I felt a whole lot more compassion for my own husband. His job can be incredibly stressful, and I felt terrible that when he came home, he was faced with mountains of dishes and laundry and children's toys littering the floor while I appeared to be sleeping peacefully through the chaos. As any single parent will tell you, family-life simply works so much better when there are two functioning adults, and I really felt bad for the extra work-load my husband had to take on while I was sick.

Both in the book and in my own situation, reinforcements were called in. I was blessed to have my mother come and take care of us for over two weeks during the worst of it, and Maribeth's own mother was also able to come and help during her recovery. But while I was so happy and grateful to have my mother here, Maribeth was super annoyed having her mother around, for reasons I couldn't quite understand. I mean, her mother maybe wasn't the take-over-everything kind of help that Maribeth wanted, but she was at least somewhat helpful. I couldn't quite figure out why Maribeth resented her so much.

So, like I said, I had a hard time feeling a lot of sympathy for Maribeth's decision to just walk out on her family. I couldn't help thinking that she was being completely unfair and not even considering her husband's side of the story (which by the end of the book, she realizes that she wasn't). I judged her as being kind of a horrible, selfish mom.

But then.

Then, shortly after finishing this book, I went over to a friend's house with a group of other moms for an evening, and I ended up staying way too late because the activity inadvertently turned into a mini-therapy session that was pretty eye-opening for me. I learned how some of these dear friends were struggling with post-partum depression, anxiety, and other hormonal issues on such a level that they really were struggling to function as mothers, let alone normal human beings. Some of them were in very, very dark places, and while they were desperately seeking help and trying to keep things together, I suddenly had a much clearer understanding of how otherwise loving mothers could find a place where they needed to leave.

This is not a book that purports to be about mental illness, which is why I missed that this was possibly a huge part of the mental space that led to Maribeth leaving her family. She does mention anxiety. She feels a pressing anxiety after her surgery that is similar to the anxiety she felt right after having the twins. But she doesn't mention depression or seem to exhibit any other signs of textbook mental illness, so I missed it. But after hearing those women talk about their own anxiety and depression, the connection suddenly became clear to me. Maribeth's physical health was always more the focus of the story, but it now seems obvious her mental health was compromised as well, and after realizing that my compassion for her increased dramatically.

While the book didn't highlight mental illness as a culprit of her decision, motherhood naturally brings with it a host of fluctuating hormones which every woman who goes through this process experiences and deals with differently. Add the stresses of modern life and throw a life-threatening illness on top of that, and how could mental health not be affected? I am generally rather stable when it comes to mental and emotional health but even I experienced some mild depression during my second pregnancy (which thankfully dissipated as soon as the baby was delivered). Also, I have grown up around mental illness in very close family members, and I've seen first-hand how depression and anxiety can affect a woman's ability to function as a wife and mother. I have nothing but sympathy for mothers who struggle to maintain mental health.

I still can't say I agree with Maribeth's decision to leave, or really sympathize with her actions once she gets away. I kept thinking of all the long-term consequences to her relationship with her husband and children. Leaving really didn't solve her big life problems, and she will still have to deal with all of that.

But I can say that, viewing her decision in the context of mental illness, I have a whole new level of compassion for her as a character. Motherhood is hard, motherhood demands a lot physically, mentally, and emotionally from women. Motherhood becomes even harder when we are physically sick, but it becomes possibly unbearable with mental illness.

To all you mothers out there in a vulnerable place, struggling either physically or mentally (or heaven forbid, both), keep fighting the good fight. I'm cheering for you! (And if you've read this book, do you agree or disagree? Was Maribeth's mental health compromised?)

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