In the spring of 2018, I had what I like to call “a bit of burnout” because “inability to give fuck about anything including but by no means limited to working to pay the bills” seems so negative.
My daughter had graduated from high school two years before and was living at home with me but her challenges prevented her from holding a job or even doing very much without intense guidance and supervision. I tried to provide that guidance and supervision while also working full-time and trying to keep the story afloat, the one about how I would be a famous writer soon if I just hung in there, a story that required me to do actual writing, and submitting, and riding the roller coaster of getting an agent and then being dumped when the manuscript didn’t sell, going to conferences to figure out what some thirty-something woman from Bryn Mawr would want to acquire for her list, and watching other people get what I wanted.
So I decided in what was either the best or worst decision of my life that I would devote my efforts to making my dream come true. I would pull back on my day job as an editor and pile all the chips on one roll of the dice. I would live on my savings and spend six months just writing and submitting and at the end of that time, I would have agents tripping over themselves, competing for my work.
I really believed this, or at least I needed to believe it. In order to recover from not giving a fuck about anything, you have to figure out something to give a fuck about.
Which was how I woke up that autumn with an unfinished novel manuscript, no agent, and no paying work in hand or on the horizon.
It was September and I had no way to pay October’s rent.
This is the point in the story where someone invariably asks, “What about Jessica?”
To which I always want to say, “Well, what about her?” Do people think I have somehow forgotten I have a child? Failed to consider her needs in the middle of falling apart? (What was I thinking?)
Relax. Jessica was fine. She is fine. The previous year, I’d learned about a program for young adults with intellectual disabilities run by a special education professor at the University of Kansas. In the program, which started in the August of my discontent, Jessica started attending regular college classes, like other students.
Getting her ready for this program required most of my spare time for the entire year prior to her admission. I helped her become familiar with the campus by walking it several times a week with her. We worked on her being left on her own—fifteen minutes at first, then half an hour—but I always had to be on call in case she was scared or didn’t know what to do or just needed reassurance that I was there. Over and over, we role-played what to do in various scenarios, practicing everything a hundred times. Every day, just about every spare moment I had.
The program director tells parents of incoming students, “One of the members of the program worked incredibly hard for a year to be able to succeed in the program!” and if you notice that something has been omitted from this description, you’re probably a caregiver yourself. And if you’re thinking all of this caregiving might have contributed to my burnout, yes.
So Jessica was fine. I suspect Jessica will always be fine; she has a knack for eating when she’s hungry and resting when she’s tired and crying when she’s sad, unlike me.
Though she wasn’t the one with her toes curled over the abyss, she could see I was in trouble. She said, as she always does when I approach cliffs, “I don’t think you should get any closer than that, Jennifer.”
She always calls me Jennifer when I’m not acting the way she thinks a mother should act, which is to say most of the time.
“What do you expect me to do?” I snapped.
The problem—or, rather, one of the very many problems—with it being September and my not having enough money coming in to pay October’s rent was that it made it nearly impossible for me to do any creative work. Some people may find starving a spur to creative effort but I don’t: the anxiety chewed up all of my attention and I spent hours every day on the hamster wheel of What should I do? What should I do?
Jessica braved my snappishness. She braced herself and looked at me. “I know you have been a freelancer for a long time. Maybe it’s time for you to get a job.”