The Worst Words an Educated Woman Can Say

June 23, 2020

I found my way to the kitchen, sat on an old gel mat I’d bought for my tired feet and looked up at the counter covered with old bills, sticky frying pans and stickier toys. Crying hysterically, I nevertheless felt a pleasant tingle. If I was going to have a debilitating panic attack 115 days into quarantine, I was grateful to have some cushioning beneath my rear end. Being on the verge of a nervous breakdown helps a person find a spark of light in the little things.

Seeking food therapy, I’d gone to the kitchen late that night intent on making and then eating a whole box of Wacky Mac. As I tore open the package, I thought about being a writer unable to write anything for days on end as I struggled in my new role as housekeeper, chef, mediator, babysitter and clown for our two little boys.

I’d hoped the Wacky Mac (and a little Netflix) would offer some respite from my unfulfillment; I’d become basically a 1950s housewife. I know I’m blessed to have a husband with steady, full-time work who helps with housework as much as he can. I also am blessed to have healthy children but, seemingly overnight, I felt as if I’d lost my entire support system of schools and daycares, close relatives who visited often, a housekeeper who came once a week, an amazing rotation of Shabbat lunch guests and the daily rewards, however challenging, of building a writing career for a few hours a day before having to pick up the kids.

These days, I’m lucky if I can send one email a day, given that our children fight every 3 1/2 minutes. When the screaming starts, I run to the rescue. I also miss spending time alone in the bathroom. 

I’ve wrestled with anxiety for decades but because of worrying about loved ones during this pandemic — including my father, who can’t stay away from Persian markets, and my mother,  who is immunocompromised —  I’ve joined the ranks of nearly 7 million Americans diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. My commemorative plaque should arrive in the mail any day now.

Hours before my panic attack, a neighbor mentioned how a friend who works at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told her there will be a second wave of COVID-19 in the winter. My heart sank. I’ve spent almost four months riddled with dark thoughts about losing loved ones. The thought of living with this anxiety until 2021 or beyond was too much.

Standing amid kitchen clutter, I realized that if I made Wacky Mac, I’d have to wash a big pot, a lid, a sieve, a measuring cup and a stirring spoon, and that prospect nearly caused me to  hyperventilate. It’s truly a blessing to have a roof over your head and pots in which to cook bountiful food, but I was a woman repulsed — domestic repulsion. Having cooked at least 270 meals since early March, the thought of washing one more pot felt like a punch in the stomach. So, I finally cracked.

I hated our apartment. I hated the dishes. I hated my neighbor’s friend at the CDC. And I hated myself. Between sobs and gasps for air, I not only begged God to forgive me for my ingratitude, but for being an “unresilient loser.” Who else except me is so fragile and privileged as to have a panic attack on the kitchen floor over mac and cheese?

I’ve spent almost four months riddled with dark thoughts about losing loved ones.

My husband woke up and ran to me, and I remembered how one of the first times he saw me was at a microphone addressing 500 people in my former role as executive director of 30 Years After — the Iranian American Jewish civic action organization. Seven years later, I was sitting on the floor in front of him rocking back and forth.

I thought about how, in Iran, our mothers had only two jobs: keep a home and care for children. They seldom complained. And no one gave them options. I thought about my grandmother, a force of nature who was born before penicillin was discovered, married at 17 and raised seven children. She nagged a lot but never complained.

And then, without really believing my own words, I said to my husband, “I wish I’d never known what it’s like to work or have a meaningful job. I wish I’d never gone to college or gotten a master’s [degree].”

In that moment, I was shamelessly spoiled; a feminist’s nightmare and a disgrace to every woman who’s ever wanted more. But I felt duped. Life in America had given me glorious choices and, as important and beautiful as being a homemaker can be, I had never chosen to be one.

Did I mean that shortsighted comment? No. But uttering it was part of my verbal time capsule of this pandemic. As a person who escaped Iran and views every opportunity with a sense of awe, I should have done better. But 270 meals, doom-and-gloom news reports and fewer support systems take their toll.

“Don’t ever forget we lived through a war in Iran,” my mother said the next day. “You’ll get through this.”

“I know,” I responded. “I also know you would have been able to handle social distancing and home duties far better than I can.”

“What?” she snorted. “If there’d been a pandemic and I hadn’t had your grandmother and your aunts and cousins in the house all day, plus our backyard, I would have lost my mind!”

It was as if a 100-pound pot had been lifted off my shoulders. Here was a woman who wasn’t given the option of professional fulfillment but who still admitted that having her kids at home probably would have driven over the edge. I felt like I’d been assigned a roommate in the cuckoo’s nest.

I’m anticipating another 300 meals (and hundreds of tantrums) in the next three months. Maybe one day, after I’m done with the dishes, my daydreams about becoming a world-renowned writer will manifest, and maybe I’ll earn the title “humorist.” If so, I’ll owe some of that success to my Wacky Mac panic attack.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker. 

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