Mar 6 2013

The Ennui

I heard a long, shrieking moan from upstairs. I couldn’t tell it if was one of Short-pants‘ angry moans or the start of a crying jag. I walked to the foot of the stairs and turned the ear that wasn’t against the telephone – I was talking to my sister – to try and hear what was happening. After the initial wail, nothing. It was quiet.
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Had I not been on the telephone, I’d have called up to her or climbed up to check. But I hate it when I’m talking to someone who switches to a conversation with their kids mid-stream, often without a warning or a quick excuse me. Since there wasn’t any continuation from the original cry, I figured she’d sorted it out. If not, I knew I’d hear from her.

After the call finished, I went upstairs and found Short-pants curled up in her bed. Buddy-roo was sitting beside her, stroking her hair with a consoling air.

“She has a fever,” Buddy-roo said, somber, like a doctor pronouncing a fatal illness.

I put my hand on Short-pants’ forehead. There was nothing feverish about it.

“What’s wrong, sweet?” I asked.

“I just felt…” She paused and moaned again. “…some boredom coming on.”

I swallowed the snicker that wanted to leap out – this is one of those instances when parenting requires such suppression – trying to think of how best to address the problem of what was clearly, to Short-pants, a serious ennui. All that came to mind was oh no, here comes adolescence.

“I’m afraid,” she whispered, as if in pain, “that I’m becoming a teenager.”

~ ~ ~

I can’t remember the last time I was bored. I think I might welcome it with my own kind of moan, one of joy. How lovely to have nothing in particular to do, no tasks in the queue, no pressing items on deck. I know boredom has its drawbacks, but I’d gladly endure them for a temporary bout of it.
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I think boredom must be good for you. In those moments of having nothing to do, or feeling like you have nothing to do, there’s reason to stop and reflect. What should I do? What do I want to do? Or even if you have a lot of things to do and it all seems tiresome – that’s a different kind of boredom – there’s an awareness that something is not quite right. It’s a signal to pay attention, a call to fix your direction, your mood, or both.

The opposite of boredom, I suppose, is being in the flow, aligned in mind and spirit with what you’re doing, so absorbed by an activity that hours pass quickly while engaged in it. It feels like this state of flow is harder and harder to achieve these days, compared to when Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first wrote about it in the ’90s, because our concentration is constantly interrupted, more than ever before.

How many of us live between boredom and flow, the purgatorial territory of just-tryin-to-keep-up? Not that it’s so terrible; there are moments of satisfaction and delight sprinting through the day-to-day. There’s even a little room for fun and laughter, just that it happens at the speed of light before turning nose back to the grindstone to attend to the oncoming deluge of professional, personal and familial tasks pressing forward. A little boredom wouldn’t hurt. More time in the flow would be ideal.

~ ~ ~

The girls are, at the moment, addicted to a game called Subway Surfer, which, thanks to the iCloud, exists on both my iPhone and iPad, so they don’t argue over who gets to play it. The app was downloaded as a reward, used only when homework and practice and chores are completed. It’s also a useful deterrent to interruptions when I have an evening conference call. In this game, the avatar – a punk kid with a spray can – is caught tagging in a train yard and must escape a captor by running along the tracks and up and over the trains, train_graffiticollecting large gold coins along the way. During the course of a single session, the more you succeed, the faster the little avatar screams along the rails, over and under barriers and zig-zagging around trains and through tunnels. Short-pants especially is adept at handling this speed with her index finger, Buddy-roo prefers her thumb but moves with agility to outrun the captor for longer than I can. My reflexes, though improving with practice, are still inferior to theirs. Or maybe I crash because it reminds me too much of my real life: things start out seeming in control, I’m buzzing along picking up coins and effortlessly jumping over obstacles. The more I seem to accomplish, the more there is to handle, and the speed of things seems to be like an avatar running out of control, crashing and burning beneath the front of an oncoming train.

~ ~ ~

She was a sweet little girl, innocent, naive, hopeful for a happy world. This is probably every mother’s elegy for a daughter on the doorstep of puberty. Having barely mastered wrestling with our own hormones, now we have to wrestle theirs, and help them with the wrestling, too. I’ve teased Short-pants, extracting promises from her not to become a rotten teenager. But it’s something we probably can’t avoid. The girl who who used to love school, who rushed to do her homework, who helped gladly with the household chores, is no longer. Okay, not entirely; her sweet smiling self is still present in our home. But she’s sometimes replaced by a quasi-grumpy girl who mopes and moans, does the bare minimum of any task assigned, school or home, and refuses to change out of her pajamas on the weekend.

She’s child/woman, not yet a teenager, but no longer little girl. One minute stomping out of the room, commanding us to leave her alone. The next, writing up a roster of fairies to use in a game of make-believe with her little sister. With all the changes going on inside that big girl/little girl body, I have no idea how on earth she could be bored. But I envy her for it. And I admire her theatrics. Let’s hope she manages all her ennui with such aplomb.


Dec 11 2012

Adjustments

I tiptoed up the stairs, knowing how if you are laying in our bed the sound of footsteps echo in our hallway and you can hear them drawing near. I slipped the key into the lock and turned it slowly, quietly pushing open the door and then easing it closed behind me, noiselessly. In the apartment, I set my suitcase down gently, surveying the cluttered living room. I was home, and so far nobody knew.

Too wired from the travel, but exhausted from the adrenaline-dip that follows every job, I was restless. I wanted to unpack, but I was afraid it might make too much noise. I didn’t feel like climbing into bed, but I didn’t want to stay up either. Mostly, I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I snuck into the bathroom to wash my face when I heard De-facto and Short-pants talking to the neighbors in the hall outside our apartment. They’d gone next door to wait for me, but I had eluded them with my stealth return. The rush of hugs a clear indication of how happy they were to see me. I was happy to see them, too. Mostly. I also wanted them to leave me alone.

Buddy-roo was at a sleepover with a friend, which in retrospect was a good decision on De-facto’s part. Sliding back into the household is hard enough. Her particular brand of attention can be overwhelming and I wasn’t yet ready to be that enthusiastic mom who re-channels it with grace.

The thing about being away is that you get used to your own company. You get used to looking at only your stuff and nobody else’s. You get used to that quiet hour before bed and the luxury of having only yourself to get ready in the morning. The clients and meetings can be demanding, but their requests fall within a reliable frame. And once the door to the hotel room is closed, there is nobody calling you to get out of bed to scratch their back, check for a fever or scare away the monster under the bed.

I remember when De-facto and I were “dating.” Ours was a long distance relationship for more than three years and we’d jet back and forth between Boston and Paris, getting to know each other one long weekend at a time. There was always an adjustment period, during which awkward feelings and questions threw darts at the initial delight of our reunion. It’d take a day or two to get in sync again. I suppose that hasn’t changed. I know how it feels when he returns from a long business trip and I’ve been running an efficient household without him. Surely my return interrupts the rhythm he and the girls have established. Not to mention how jarring it is for me.

All of a sudden, I’m a mom again. I have to attend to boo-boos and aches and pains and the combing and braiding of hair. I have to get excited about art projects and stop whatever I’m doing to watch the latest ballet move. I have to press little noses to the grindstone on their homework. I resume my role as Vice President of Errands: the book of verb conjugation I have to buy (for tomorrow); the trousse d’écolier is missing a glue stick or it out of ink cartridges for the fountain pen; the music teacher requires the purchase of a metronome and a battery-powered tuner – the tapping of feet and my old-fashioned tuning fork aren’t sufficient. One girl needs metro tickets for a field trip, the other baked goods for a school party. These requests are presented haphazardly and of course, at the last possible minute.

What’s remarkable is how quickly you get out of practice. I was only gone for two weeks, but I’ve gotten sloppy. Last night, when De-facto came home from an evening out, I’d just barely put the girls to bed. He grilled me on our activities.

“Did they do their handstands?”

Short-pants has to achieve this for her gym class, so they’ve started practicing every night at home to strengthen her arms. I shook my head; I’d forgotten.

“Viola practice?”

I hung my head in shame. “No.”

I had to confess to him that I’d fallen asleep on the couch while Short-pants and Buddy-roo played on my iPad. Some stellar parenting, that.

He smiled. “A little rusty, are you?”

Instead of getting perturbed, he pokes fun at me, which, I suppose, is just what it takes to help me make the adjustment to being back home.


Dec 2 2012

Being Away

It usually starts with tip-toeing around the apartment in the early morning darkness, adding the last toiletry items to my suitcase and leaving a post-it note on the kitchen island with a last minute instruction about some detail that must be attended to in my absence. If time permits, a soft kiss on angelic foreheads of sleeping children and a light touch on De-facto’s shoulder before ever-so-gently closing the door behind me and heading down the stairs carrying suitcase and computer bag. Once out on the street, my rollaway valise is noisy against the cobblestone streets, rickety-rickety until the pavement turns smooth and the taxi stand is in sight.

A taxi ride to a train or a plane that takes me far away, and I find myself in a conference hotel somewhere, with the prospect of two or three or five nights without my family in reach.

“It must be hard, with all your travel,” people say.

It’s not. I like the fact that when I’m on a job – my work is intense, immersive and full-on – that I can be singular in focus. I can work until the work is done without having to switch gears to domestic matters. I need the hour of absolute quiet to wind down before going to sleep, and I need the hour of solitude upon walking up to keep my energy intact for the next day’s work. I actually like the break from my family.

I have colleagues who check in every day, more than once, keeping in touch with spouses and children. Oddly, De-facto and I don’t bother. He travels as much as I do, often leaving me at home with Short-pants and Buddy-roo for a week or more at a time. We’ll go days without talking to each other when one of us is on the road. An occasional email message will assure us that the other is still alive, but they’re usually short and sweet.

When the girls were little we thought it would be important to call home and touch base with them, like that would somehow be reassuring. It did just the opposite. My call would inevitably occur at the worst possible moment, interrupting the flow constructed by De-facto or by the babysitter. I remember De-facto was out of town and the girls and I were happily in our groove when he called to check in. At first, it was a delight for them, to hear his voice and have a chat. But once he hung up, they began to wail. All I heard for the rest of the day was how much they missed Papa.

I guess it’s a courtesy we give each other, De-facto and I, and it works both ways. When you’re gone, you’re gone; go do your thing and check in when you can. And when you’re home, you’re home; just keep calm and carry on.

It doesn’t mean I don’t think about them or that I don’t miss them. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love for one of those cherubs to crawl in for the morning cuddle (quietly) or that I don’t long to have a strong hug from De-facto and his thoughtful ear to talk to about all that’s happening. But we’ve somehow struck a balance that permits each one of us to pursue the professional and personal activities that will nourish us, without turning the idea of being away from home into a big deal or a bad thing.

The girls voice their disappointment about our absences, but they soldier on with one parent – or with our good caregivers when both De-facto and I must be away – and I think this is important for them to understand: Mama and Papa do interesting things. Someday, I tell them, you’ll go off to do interesting things too. They’re learning to be a little independent, forced to manage without my care every waking moment. And most important, they know first hand that when I go away, I come back. This must give them some sense of security, and it gives me a sense of freedom, much needed.

Plus the reunions are always so sweet.

It’s rare that I have two week-long programs back-to-back, but that’s the case for this trip. I’m only halfway through and knackered already, but I’m happy. Happy to be able to travel and do the work that I do; happy to have a family at home that, even though they might miss me, doesn’t mind so much, me being away.

The photograph of the Parisian street by Peter Turnley.


Dec 31 2011

Nothing Doing

We hover around the wood stove. Its cylinder drum radiates a fierce heat if you stand too close, but still it’s not enough to warm the entire room. We live mostly in this room, the main room of our country house, venturing outside only to acquire more firewood or to go the neighbor’s bench to tap into their wi-fi network. Unless you’re near the fire, you might as well be upstairs, or outside. It’s cold, and raw.

De-facto installed an electric heater in the new room in the back of the house – the guest room – so that the girls could have a warm place to sleep. The first night we were here they gutted it out in sleeping bags in the loft. I didn’t like the fact that I could see my breath when I was tucking them in, but that loft is the kid’s world and Short-pants especially was determined to sleep there.

At the country house our sleep is sound and heavy. We wake naturally, without any alarm, a luxurious break from the get-them-off-to-school morning grind. I rise and make my way downstairs to stoke the stove. De-facto has made a science of stuffing it full and closing the vents for a slow burn all night long. I have been chastised to save the thickest logs for these overnights. In the daytime, we burn smaller wood and the floorboards we removed to create the loft in the room that’s now too cold to sleep in.

The coffee press produces its black elixir, mixed with milk steamed in a dented saucepan on our beat-up three-burner cooking stove. The mug warms my hands as I sip from it, staring out the window at the wet trees. If it weren’t raining, if the sky were blue and the ground dry, I’d go out and prune the grapes and cut back the rose bushes. De-facto could climb up on the roof and reorder the misplaced tiles that are causing the gentle drip-drop in our bedroom. But it is raining, and I don’t even mind. The rain quiets us and turns us inward, the right spirit for the end of the year reflection and assessment.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo stumble out of their slumber, rubbing their eyes and scratching their bed-heads. Their pajamas reveal knobby ankles and long, thin forearms; their country house clothes are all just a bit too small for them. Things gets dirty and ruined so easily here, it’s become the stopping-off place between their good “city clothes” and the good will. They look like urchins, or something out of a bleak Dicken’s story.

I make them a tartine with butter and honey, and heat up some pain au raisin from the bakery. More milk is warmed, this time to make hot chocolate. The futon couch has been moved so it’s right next to the wood stove. We sit on it together. We don’t talk: it’s too early for words or it’s too quiet for words or else they just aren’t necessary. We stare at the stove, listening to it pop and crackle, listening to the rain against the glass panes, the dripping faucet, the creaking and groaning of the house. We sit like this for a long time, doing nothing but staring and listening.

It’s a lost art, the art of doing nothing, ill-practiced these days in our world filled with 24/7 news sweeps, iPhones that ding in the night and a constant stream of feeds and posts we’re supposed to like or not. People sleep less, rush more. We are compelled always to be busy at something. To do nothing is to stand still against the rush of activity in which the world is so seriously engaged. Productivity and efficiency and impact – these are the measures of success. But are they the best measures of contentment?

At home, it’s hard to do nothing. There’s always something calling: things that need to be straightened, organized, fixed, cleaned, started or finished. Not that there aren’t plenty of projects at this country house, but when it’s cold and rainy, most of them can’t be tackled. And since (up until now) we haven’t installed an internet connection, the distractions of email, social networking and other web activity disappear. There’s empty time and space, with no urgency to fill it.

Eventually there were words. A description of last night’s dream. A question about the smoke from the fireplace. A remark about how nice it is to have nothing to do. De-facto stirred upstairs – there is no insulation between the floors so you can hear every word, every footstep – we listened to him groan out of bed and run through his morning yoga poses before he trampled down the stairs and turned the corner into the kitchen to catch the three of us there, cuddled up on the couch, by the fire, doing nothing.

“What are we doing?” he said, grinning at us.
“Nothing,” said Buddy-roo.
“Are we happy?”
“Yes,” said Short-pants.

The country house isn’t my favorite winter destination. In the spring when the days lengthen and the sun is warm, it is much more pleasant. In the summer, there are soft grassy lawns and swings and blackberries to harvest. We leave the doors open and run in and out of the house in flip-flops. In the autumn, the temperature is still gentle and the crisp smell of leaves and the promise of Halloween summon a unique country house mood. But in winter, it’s damp and raw, rainy and windy. The house takes days to heat up. It always feels like the stones begin to retain the enough heat to go without double sweaters just as we’re about to close the house to head home.

Yet it is in this condition that perhaps we learn the most from this old stone homestead, when it draws us in and requires us to wait and watch the weather, when it offers us nothing but a few moments to slow down our thoughts and hear them without the clutter and hurry-up of our day-to-day routines. What I love about the country house is how it asks us to do nothing, and, when that’s what we do, there’s nothing else like it.


Dec 10 2011

The Recovery

At dinner that night I glanced down at my watch to see that it was nearly half-eight. That’s 8:30 in the morning home in Paris. I’d meant to call the girls during their breakfast, to catch up in general but especially to wish Short-pants well for her viola recital that evening. I leapt up from the dinner table and rushed to the meeting room, where I’d left my computer. I punched the phone number into Skype, counting each hollow ring, one after the other, until our message machine picked up. I tried the babysitter’s number, too, her phone providing the same lonely sound with no answer either. She was probably already walking them to school.

So many times had I said out loud to my colleagues I must call the girls tonight so I reach them at breakfast. How hard can it be to remember one simple promise to myself? Pretty hard, apparently, as the dinner conversation with colleagues and clients – accompanied by a glass of wine – distracted me enough to miss the thin window of opportunity to talk with them. Another example in my list of failed parenting moments.

Except it was about to be Thursday for me, Wednesday for them, the day they get out of school at noon. So I figured I had still had a chance to wish Short-pants luck before her recital if I could just stay up until half-past midnight to call and reach them at lunchtime in Paris. But my eyes were drooping shut by eleven o’clock, I surrendered to sleep fast and heavy – as one does within the wake of jet-lag – but at least I’d set my alarm, which went off shortly before 1 am.

“Mama!” Buddy-roo’s enthusiasm at hearing my voice, instant reassurance that they hadn’t forgotten me.

“Hey,” I said, yawning and groggy. “How are you sweetie?”

“Mama, when are the Fisher Price toys going to get here?”

These old toys of mine were sent with the other things from my mother’s house, a shipment that left the states in October and has not yet cleared European customs. I assured her that I’d filled out all the paperwork and I was just waiting to be given a delivery date.

Her enthusiasm disappeared for the rest of the conversation: How are you doing? Fine. How was school? Good. Did you have fun at the birthday party last weekend? Yes. I opted not to ask about homework, as much of a chore this year as last. We dog her enough about it, that there’s nothing I can do from so far away to move things along. Best not to touch upon a sore subject.

“Can I talk to your sister?”

I heard the phone clunk down on the counter and the footsteps the followed as she ran off to get her sister. I desperately wanted to speak to Short-pants before her concert to let her know I was thinking about her, so that she’d tune her viola knowing that, even from far away, I was rooting for her. Mostly that she’d know she wasn’t forgotten. It’s hard enough, I think, to have an event like this that your parents cannot attend. Worse if it goes by without a crystal clear message that being absent doesn’t mean uninterested.

Short-pants came on the phone.

“Are you ready?”

“Yes, Mama,” she said, “I’ve practiced every night. I know it by heart.”

This conversation an echo of so many exchanges from my childhood. Within it I heard my father’s carefully chosen words to acknowledge preparedness over perfection. And her response, like mine probably was, couched with the intent to please. Add this moment to all the rest – good and bad – where you catch yourself parenting as you were parented.

As a young violist, just about Shortpants’ age, I remember my father once complimented me after an orchestra concert and I told him, with some embarrassment, that I’d actually lost my place during one of the pieces.

“What did you do?” he’d asked.

I told him how I’d faked it until I could find my place in the music and rejoin the rest of the orchestra. I remember his long fingers, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose to adjust them as he summoned his thoughtful response.

“It’s not the fall,” he said, nodding, “it’s the recovery.”

This advice I’ve passed on to others, but I seem to forget to apply to myself.

Despite all the self-talk about how the kids are fine, they’re better adjusted because we’re not hovering over them all the time, how seeing us go away and return is good for their self-esteem, how they’ll be more independent as a result, the truth is I feel like shit about missing this recital. It was her first one ever, and I wasn’t there. I wish I could have beamed myself home, and that it wasn’t the babysitter and her family who’d be there clapping in the audience, but me and De-facto amongst the other proud parents.

I could hear Buddy-roo crying in the background, asking to have the phone back. I reminded Short-pants how much I love her and told her to break a leg, an odd turn of phrase to use, given that her broken leg at age four had its own complications. But she knew what I meant.

“Why do you have to be gone so long?” Buddy-roo asked, through tears. I told her it was because I had to go so far away. It was hard to console her, knowing I had still another full week before I could even say I’ll be home soon.

“When you get back home,” she said, “then will the Fisher Price toys come?”

I assured her they would.

“Okay,” she said, composing herself. I may have fallen from her good graces for being gone so long, but I think I know just how to make a full recovery.


Oct 18 2011

Busy Bodies

“It’s my busy day,” she said, “I have too many things to do.” Short-pants was referring to Thursdays, a long day for her. She gets out of school earlier than usual, but after a short break for a snack and homework, she has to run off to the conservatory for her viola lesson at 6:00 pm, followed by a music theory class from 6:30 to 8:00 pm. It’s not ideal, being schooled in the evening. But it’s the only class that fits with the rest of her schedule, unless we want to succumb to a Saturday obligation. And if she wants to continue with her viola at the conservatory, the theory class is obligatory.

Is this the curse of our time? To be always busy? To feel the burden of constant busy-ness, even at the tender age of ten? When I was her age I had only a little homework and all my extra-curricular activities were somehow incorporated into the school day, a factor of being enrolled in an American primary school during the ’70s. I don’t think I felt fatigued by my schedule. I remember having ample time to play, to read for pleasure, to watch television with my family in the evenings. Sure I had outside commitments; I took private piano lessons from a very young age. But even in high school, when I added several after-school activities, I wasn’t busy.

Does she get it from me? Is her awareness of the weight of her schedule a reflection of her own experience, or is she parroting what she hears me mumbling about to De-facto when my day gets hijacked by little errands and tasks that pop up and scream at me for immediate attention, thrusting me into the urgent but not important quadrant of time management. Some of this is my doing: trips to the beauty nurse are an interruption that I could eliminate, but for the consequences. But too often I feel utterly out of control of my daily itinerary, racing to do things I didn’t arrange for myself. I left the more structured, corporate job scene to get off the hamster wheel, but now I’m on another one, of my own making. Call it the hamster wheel of motherhood.

It seems to be my story, the busy one. And it’s dull. Yes, my days are packed with busy little things. Short-pants is out of cartridges for her stylo plume, or I have to organize her second attestation d’assurance. The girls’ ID cards must be procured at the prefecture, an ill-timed administrative errand that interrupts time I’d set aside to work, but was urgent enough – an upcoming voyage where they are required – to displace my schedule and requiring two trips to the prefecture. Buddy-roo needs a present for an upcoming birthday party, or there’s a note in her cahier that she needs something new for school, by tomorrow. There are a dozen tiny things like this on the list, none of them on their own particularly time consuming, but their accumulation and interruptive quality stun me. That long chunk of hours I’d set aside to work or write squeezes in on me like the narrowing walls of a horror movie, and then, just as I get in the groove of concentration, it’s time to go wait outside the school and bring the girls home.

I’m so tired of being busy. I’m tired of squeezing too much into too few hours. I’m tired of rushing through my life and feeling too busy to stop and linger or else feeling guilty when I do, for instance, linger after school drop-off for coffee with the other parents, or when I go to meet a friend for a drink instead of using those last child-free hours to finish my work, which is never finished.

I need to change something, because what I’m doing isn’t working. But what? What to remove (or possibly add) that will put me back in a more productive, efficient mode? Or in a stress-free mode? Or else this: what might inspire me to care less about the fact that it’s never all done, I’ll never be caught up, this unfinished head-just-above-water, life-in-constant-progress feeling will accompany me, probably, until my life is finished. One could even hope for that.

Buddy-roo’s angst about homework is somewhat diminished from last year. As she matures, her capacity to address the hefty assignment list improves. She’s even starting to understand the concept of working ahead on the weekend, so her after-school workload isn’t quite as crushing. But still, there’s always homework for her to do. The girls also have their chores around the house, the seeds of community service which we acknowledge with a modest allowance. But when we have to remind Buddy-roo to empty the silverware tray from dishwasher or to pull the empty toilet paper rolls from the bathroom and put them in the recycling, or to move her toys upstairs, she sighs with exasperation, “Everybody keeps telling me all these things I have to do, like homework and chores. I never have enough time to play.”

I know where this comes from. It’s her experience, and she’s repeating what she hears too often from me. I’m turning them – or letting them be turned – into human doings instead of human beings. We’re all running on our own little hamster-wheels, and I’m wondering – a lot – about how can we get off and just have some time to play.


Apr 3 2011

It rains, it pours.

I woke up to the sound of rain. Pouring rain. Teeming, relentless rain.

We live immediately beneath the roof, and on days when there is nowhere in particular to go, the rain’s melodic timpani is soothing and cozying-in. This was, however, not one of those mornings. An early morning meeting meant I had to be up before dawn. Not just a meeting I had to attend and add my occasional two-cents, this was a meeting I had to set up, and lead. A meeting with output that I had the responsibility to produce.

To complicate matters, De-facto was out of town and I’d been solo-piloting the household all week. I’d made an arrangement with neighbors to drop Short-pants and Buddy-roo at their place at 7:30 and they’d finish the delivery at school an hour or so later. But in order for all this to happen, it mean rousing the girls at 6:45, which meant getting up and getting myself ready first.

I’m not really a six-in-the-morning type of mom. I’m more of a who-wants-to-make-me-coffee-while-I-lay-in-bed kind of mom. But I heeded the alarm; I had no choice. I did all the personal bits to put myself in presentable order and then started poking my sleeping beauties. Grumpy, groggy heads rose off the pillows with thick resistance. The aroma of pancakes (batter mixed the night before) in a hot fry pan finally got their attention and stirred them from the warmth of their beds.

The rain was heavy and steady. I’d be better off in a cab than walking to and from the metro at both ends of this trip, so I found my cell phone and dialed T-A-X-I. The automated greeting prompted me to punch in 0735, the time in four digits that I wanted to be picked up. A robotic voice confirmed a taxi at 7:35 at an address on rue du Bourg Tibourg. Not my street, that was where some visiting friends had stayed a few months ago and I’d organized their ride to the airport – evidently the last time I called for a taxi. I pressed “2” for the menu option to change the address. The automated system wouldn’t accept it and repeatedly asked me to confirm the same incorrect address. I tried everything: saying no, saying my address, pressing a number of other keys on the telephone keypad before hanging up exasperated, in the meantime nearly burning a pancake while attempting to sort out my transportation to this meeting.

I used the landline to call another taxi service. The good news: an actual person answered. The bad news: it was impossible to order a taxi for 25-minutes-from-now, I had to call when I was ready for the cab to arrive. Except when it’s raining in Paris, and you call for a taxi immediate, you’re guaranteed the standard answer: sorry, no cars available.

In other news, the clothes I’d laid out for Buddy-roo were all wrong. I’d fastened the clasps on Short-pants’ backpack without zipping it first, as she prefers. And apparently, there was too much syrup on the pancakes.

“Please just eat the pancake,” I said.
“But I can’t,” said Short-pants.
“Just eat the pancake.”
“It’s too syrupy.”
Then came the I’m-seriously-about-to-get-angry voice, the really stern one.
“Eat. The. Pancake.”

The eruption of tears shouldn’t have surprised me, Short-pants is über-sensitive. When Buddy-roo joined in, upset by my tone or her sister’s tears (or both) and I had two wailing girls on my hands. My eyes darted to the microwave clock – it was 7:12 and they needed to be fed and dressed and brushed in fifteen minutes and I’d managed to throw a wrench in the plan I’d worked out to prepare the kids cheerfully but swiftly, get them out the door and get myself (and a suitcase full of workshop supplies) to this damn meeting on time.

A crescendo of rain pounded on the kitchen skylight, the sound nearly drowning out their tandem crying.

In moments like this, a time-out is the best option. I removed myself to the still-curtained dark of my bedroom, permitted a few curses to escape, words I’m sure I’ll hear parroted at a future and inopportune moment. This was followed by the contemplation – in a split second – of all the choices I’d made in my life to bring me to this moment. A few synapses-signals later, my string of misery: I hated my work, I hated my children, I hated De-facto (this was all his fault anyway), I hated Paris. I hated the rain. I hated taxis. I hated all the other would-be passengers waiting ahead of me in the long line at a taxi queue that would empty of any cabs. I hated the room full of people waiting for me, everybody tapping their foot while I’d be hurrying to set the room, like one of those nightmares you wake up from in a sweat or like a painfully clumsy scene from Mr. Bean, where I’d be fumbling around to hang flip-chart paper on the wall and dropping pads of post-it notes all over the floor.

Big breath. A shift in thinking, to consider this: Not an earthquake. Not a tsunami. Not a nuclear disaster. No guerilla combatants within range. “Not my wife, not my life,” somebody wise once told me. Just a long week alone with the girls (hats off to every single parent in the world), and a temporary wave of stress about a job I wanted to do well. I lifted my head from my hands, gathered myself up off the bed and returned to the kitchen where the girls had remained frozen in their chairs, crying, not eating.

“How about I make another pancake and put it on the plate with that one, to soak up the syrup?”

The crying calmed to sniffles and a solemn nodding of heads. Breakfast resumed and completed. Teeth were brushed. Shoes and coats and donned, book-bags hoisted over little shoulders. Children hustled down the stairs and handed off successfully. The rain had let up. A miracle of plenty at the taxi queue. I even had time for a quick coffee at the café beside the office where my meeting was to be held. It’s true when it rains, it pours – but never forget, then it stops.


Nov 30 2010

Nobody’s Perfect

Try as I may to let our upstairs be the wild and creative universe of my children, eventually I reach a point when I can no longer endure the disorder. This is usually prompted by a predictable chain of events: Buddy-roo dilly-dallies through breakfast, and the absolute last time of departure (ALTD) to get to school on time is fast approaching so I volunteer to go up to her room and select an outfit. “Pants or a dress?” I pretend this is a fun errand. Upstairs I’m appalled at the clutter that collects in just a few days since it was last in a reasonably tidy state. “It’s okay, they’re being creative,” I say to myself, closing the drawers left wide open and snatching Short-pants’ eyeglasses up off the floor, barely managing not to flatten them, instead stepping on some tiny piece of plastic, an umbrella shaped thing that came home in the favor-bag from a birthday party. It smarts, a lot. I lose it. Get up here now and pick up your rooms! All the reasoning and thoughtful discussions go out the window. So much for being the ideal parent. But sometimes it just feels good to holler.

The results of the first trimester bilans come home. Buddy-roo’s scores are all over the board. Even Short-pants, who actually enjoys doing her homework, has inconsistent grades. I smile at anything equal to or above a score of 8/10. I try not to overreact to that glaring 5/10. I ask her how she feels about it. “I’m not that strong at geography,” she says.

I’m torn. I want to inspire her to try harder, do better. Another part of me remembers a consultant I worked with in my earliest career, Don Clifton was his name, talking about how good leaders were rarely straight-A students; they only excelled in the subjects in which they had strengths or that they felt were important. In other words, they prioritized.

We talk about how to do better in geography and I try not to harp on it. A final summary sentence about how hard she’s worked and how that really paid off with her grades. “Except that one,” I say. (But not out loud.)

I don’t want to pressure my kids to get everything right all the time. But is this a question of individual strengths and preferences or is it just plain lack of trying? It might be that she just got lazy – sometimes that’s all it is – and being reminded might help her do better the next time.

On the other hand, maybe she’s just not that strong at geography.

Buddy-roo can recite by heart entire passages from the movie Hello Dolly, or sing the most obscure song from On the Town without any practice. But ask her to conjugate the verb être, even though we’ve been over it a million times, she still can’t remember the six forms of the present tense without making a mistake. I don’t want to beat her up. But I know she can do it.

What’s the right balance of supporting and challenging your children? How do I inspire them to try to perform well – and take pride in their work – without thrusting upon them the stress of being a perfectionist?

I’m sure I make things more complicated than they need to be. My parents had no apparent angst about how to respond to my report card. Good grades were expected. If you got a B, it was met with a raised eyebrow. Getting a C was grounds for a discussion; you were called in to the living room and seated at the square card table. My parents were never cruel or harsh, and yet we lived in mild fear of disappointing them, and this was what you realized you’d done if you were called in to sit at that table. Would a psychologist today find fault in the way they held us to their standards? Maybe. But they weren’t trying to be perfect parents. They were trying to be good parents.

I sit in judgment of messy bedrooms or inconsistent grades, but what about me? Do I get it all right, all the time? Consider the piles of files and papers stashed in shelves in our office, I mean to sort through them but somehow never get to it. My taxes are never turned in without at least filing for one extension. I ran a workshop yesterday and it went well, but it was far from flawless. I’ve been writing a post about procrastination – for another blog I write with my colleagues – for three months now. (This is not even ironic anymore, it’s pathetic.)

I signed up for the NaNoWriMo challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November – ambitious if you’re composing a novel from scratch, but the last unfinished chapters of my novel are already outlined, which ought to make the job easier. I started with great fervor, overshooting the suggested daily goal by a few hundred words each day in anticipation of the mid-month business travel that would interrupt the daily exercise. That trip set me back several thousand words, and when I returned home I was bombarded with things not attended to in my absence. I knew I shouldn’t let it stop me, but once I was 10,000 words behind it was too overwhelming. So that novel I’ve been writing for seven years, it’s still not done.

Oh, guess what? I’m human.

As a mother, I’m compelled to fend off the idealized image of motherhood (this is the point of my unfinished book by the way), which has made us a generation of parents that over-protects and over-provides. Our children, in turn, are under pressure to be the perfect children, to have dabbled in all the right extracurricular activities, to get the best scores, to be popular and social and yet independent and self-possessed. To go to the right school, the one most likely to help you get into the next right school. This all horrifies me, having grown up in a generation that did not study for SATs – they were aptitude tests, after all – and I’m fatigued just thinking about what’s ahead for the girls as they grow into young women hoping to find their place in the world.

(And yet I hope is that they will do well – in school and in life – so that they’ll have more choices when it comes to finding their place in this world.)

There is the adage, one I’ve subscribed to in theory but perhaps not in practice, that if you’re going to do something, do it well or not at all. The inclination to cross every t and dot every i and put your best work forward isn’t necessarily a bad thing – until it becomes compulsive and restrictive. Sometimes it’s just fine to be good enough, to let them be the messy, dreamy kids that they are, and to be the mother who does her best while juggling a lot, which sometimes means raising my voice or losing my temper. Besides, sometimes it just feels good to holler.


Sep 10 2010

#Fail

If you could evaluate my mothering style for the last week, it would be a giant hash tag: #Fail. I’ve been impatient, quick to shout, rushing through the to-do list, rushing through the apartment, rushing through my angry life. This is partly due to a big job, one with tentacles that reach far beyond the original scope of the project. It’s also due to the rentreé – what the French call this moment of back to school, back to work after taking most of August off. Or maybe it’s just me, drowning in my own expectations.

Despite my foresight in July to buy all the girls’ books and school supplies before the crowded and dreaded last week of August, I still scrambled to get them out the door fully prepared for their first day of school, and it didn’t keep me from being subjected to the annual French pedagogical practice of scorning the parents. There were messages from the maitresses in the Cahiers de Correspondence reminding me that their books have not been properly covered in clear plastic wrap (akin to working with fly paper) or the wrong kind of colored pencils have been purchased, we have to send another box of tissues to the school, we need ID photos for the kids by the next morning and even though it’s 7:00 and I just got home and there’s still homework to finish and dinner to be made and another teleconference at 9:00, something I try to avoid but inevitably with colleagues and clients in other continents this rule gets excepted and tonight of all the nights I have a call but yes we’ll find pictures of you both and print them out for school tomorrow.

Oh and what’s this other note from the teacher? I have to fill out medical forms with the name, address and all phone numbers of mother, father and babysitter, a form much like the three forms I filled out and sent to school with each child (6 forms!) yesterday, only I must attach a copy of the their vaccination records even though I did this last year and the year before and don’t they keep these records on file? Even though everybody would be happier if they just computerized the system mais non it wouldn’t be the same if those faded photocopied forms weren’t sent home every year to be filled out exponentially.

As you can tell, I’m about to lose it.

De-facto smartly steps back and leaves a larger path for me to run my Tazmanian Devil routine. My murmuring and muttering in the kitchen – and by the way why can’t he load the damn dishwasher correctly – is less offensive if heard from another room on the other side of the apartment. The girls attempt to console me, but they are wrapped up in their own dramas: new teachers, an increased load of homework, back to the weekday morning up-and-out when they’d rather hang-around-and-play. Everybody is adjusting to something.

Then the Skype phone rings. If I answer it, something that I’ve been trying to handle for the last three days can disappear from my list. I hesitate. I don’t want to answer it, but then that something will keep stalking me. The headset goes on.

I swear, after each job, that from now on I will be the kind of mom that does not work between 5 pm and bedtime, in order to be present, help with homework, sit on the couch and tickle, cuddle or read together, to sit calmly at dinner and inquire about their day, to be the mom who gives them the most precious thing ever – more precious than any new toy or gadget – the precious thing of time. But I am not really that mom. I cannot even manage this simplest part of mothering without interruptions.

Then I realize that I’ve failed to be the mom I want to be, the one who’s busy enough to set a good example about being engaged in the world and having a purpose and a profession, but also that mom who’s present: listening, understanding, caring, being there. I’ve failed to be zen, calm, cool and together. Failed to juggle it all the way I proclaimed I would when I was in my twenties imagining myself as the über-working-mother. Failed to live up to my own expectations. Failed to bridge the widening gap between my real self and my ideal self.

While I’m on the call, Short-pants stubs her toe on the kitchen island but it happens just at the moment I am building up to the climax of that critical point I really needed to make. Instead of comforting her, I hold my finger up to my mouth and she runs upstairs to her room screeching. Then it’s all pointless; I’m not really listening to the other side of the call anymore because I’m feeling the hollow dent in my gut as I join, once again, the failing-mother’s club.

By the time I finish, my daughters are at each other’s throats and I head upstairs to mediate. I am too exhausted to cope – I have spent an entire day being polite to people, listening through conference calls with far too many participants, carefully crafting emails meant to inspire a positive response. I have spent every ounce of my poise on other people and now, at home, hungry, tired and exasperated, I fly off the cuff at the littlest thing. I even use the F-word, much to my chagrin.

“Mama,” Short-pants says, “you just said fuck.”

“I know,” I say, “that’s really bad.”

They stare at me, waiting to see what I’ll do next.

“Shall we all say it together now?” I’m on a roll. “Ready one, two, three.”

We all scream it out loud and then I say “Okay it’s a bad, bad word. Let’s none of us ever use it again.”

They nod at me, still in shock.

“Okay, maybe one more time, to get it out of our system.” I count to three and we all scream it again at the top of our lungs and then fall on the bed giggling and laughing. Which turns to crying. Crying because it’s all so much, it’s all too much. Too much to do. Too much to miss. Too much to manage. There’s too much everything. Too much love and too much pain. There’s just too much.

Sometimes I feel like I’m failing spectacularly. Of course this not true: if you spend an hour in the presence of my daughters you’ll experience them in the most positive way: They are engaging with adults but still magically childlike. They are polite but expressive. They are little thinking, feeling people. They open their hearts to the world, without making too much of a fuss. I like to joke about Buddy-roo‘s materialism, but she has a good heart and she can surprise you with her thoughtfulness. And Short-pants, she’s as wise as a crone. They’re both turning out just fine. But still, my mothering is flawed and sloppy, inconsistent. (Clearly, it must be De-facto’s influence.)

Listen, I know this is all just a lot of noise. I know that the most important thing is to love them and to let them know they’re loved. I know that it’s better for them to see me as a real person with regular human frailties, not as some sort of bionic super-mom. But even though I profess that I’m not trying to be perfect and do it all – it’s a big fat lie. I know it’s impossible and futile, but honestly I can’t help myself. It’s in me.

What worries me is that I will pass this on, that it will be in them, that somehow they will think that they have not been good enough, that they will perceive my impatience as a reflection on them. It becomes imperative to let go, to lighten up and laugh at it all. If not for my own sanity, at least do it for theirs. But can I do that while under pressure? Not yet, apparently. But I’m working on it.


Sep 19 2009

Rear View Mirror

I used to be somebody.

I had a job – okay maybe not a big fat job, but a little fat job – with an uplifting title and a salary that seemed to me handsomer than I’d expected for that stage of my life. I had a secretary, employees who wanted to please me, colleagues who cared what I thought, and a few fans in the business who were happy to run into me at conventions. I left a tiny mark on an industry – a pinky print on a short period of its history, but nonetheless, I did one or two notable things.

Because my neck and shoulders used to hurt from too much telephone time, I wore a headset, making it impossible for my staff to know if I was actually on the phone or not. I preferred to keep my office door open, so my assistant made a changeable plaque for my desk that read NOW or NOT NOW, to silently inform people of my availability to converse. My office was a corner one, not as large as the other older executives – and admittedly it came with a view of a depressed New England city – but it was a light, bright office, and I was happy for all the glass, which I used to tally the performance of the sales people in the division on what we called the Window of Opportunity.

But the wanderlust started singing its siren song, rustling up the restlessness in me, beckoning me to quit my job and the up-and-coming life I had perfunctorily choreographed for myself. “You’ve got the coolest job,” people said, “how can you leave?” It was hard to explain that the consequences of not leaving had surpassed those of leaving, as scary as it was.

What followed was weird and wonderful; to stow my belongings and move to Europe, to be in my thirties and yet footloose, like a college student without a college. No job. No man. No itinerary. No dependents. I was a professional vagabond. Or at least that was my response to people asking that rather uninventive question, “and what do you do?”

I did this flittering about thing for just enough time to run out of money, and then (luckily) found myself in career-step again, in the same industry but on a different (and desired) coast of the Atlantic, bouncing around European capitals. But then, like Ground Hog Day, once again the restlessness took hold. So I stepped off the hamster wheel, again.
clock
And well here I am. I don’t have to go to an office every day. I am more in control of my time than my friends with regular full-time jobs. I schedule long vacations when I want. I choose to accept assignments, or not. I work with a cool network of colleagues, so I still get the best of the team thing, but sans all the baloney.

I’m a working mother on my own terms; I was home when they were babies and now I’m home – more often than not – when the kids come home from school. I witnessed all the firsts, first hand (well except this one). Plus there’s this: I have time to fart around. You know, the sort of puttering not really doing anything but kind of reading maybe daydreaming, thinking about whatever, Walter Mitty-ish, distracted way of wasting time? I actually get to do a bit of that.

This is the part where I’m supposed to crow about how leaving the corporate grind was a redefining, liberating moment from which the good fortune of my life has been launched. I’m supposed to brag about how I’m so much happier now, without those external pressures, the full-on job, the bullshit of the corporate world. I’m supposed to say my life is exponentially improved and that quitting that job was the best thing I ever did, for me and well certainly – cue the trumpet fanfare – for my children.

Except there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t wonder if it was the right choice. I miss some parts of that previous incarnation of me, despite my smug satisfaction about how sweet things have turned out. God knows I miss the secretary. But I also miss the brain-jolt that comes from working with a cohesive team, every day. I miss the camaraderie of pulling together to meet that weekly deadline, or face a tough first quarter, or celebrate a we-pulled-it-off performance. I miss the status – there I said it – of having a few initials by my name and the doors that opened to me as a result. I miss the truly disposable income that comes from a steady and hearty paycheck, you know, higher thread-counts and other little luxuries of life that aren’t must-have but sure are nice-to-have.
yin-yang-man
So did I make the right choice? Have I made a mistake? Or is this questioning simply a natural reaction, at this middle-ish point of my life, to reflect upon the choices I’ve made and experience the reward and regret associated with paths both chosen and un-chosen?

I have friends who’ve done well. They get profiled in the Alumni magazine. They appear in stories above the fold on the front page of the New York Times. They’ve made a major lasting impact in their fields. They live in apartments with foyers larger than my bedroom, or designer homes built with the profit from stocks I opted to sell so I could move abroad. Funny that it’s often when I think about these more traditionally successful people that the pangs for what I didn’t do seem fiercer. Then I saw this thoughtful post by Tim Kreider for the New York Times’ Blog, Happy Days. He calls this phenomenon the referendum, a (mostly, but not entirely) midlife examination, driven by the realization that time and choices are running out and as we take a measure of ourselves, we can’t help but make a comparison to our peers.

It’s exacerbated by the far greater diversity of options available to us now than a few decades ago, when everyone had to follow the same drill. We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning.

Satisfaction alternating with dissatisfaction passes over me like ocean waves. One day I’m winning, perfectly delighted with the quasi-bohemian freedom of my life. The next day, I wonder if having and doing those other things would have made life easier or more enjoyable.

And some days I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better off without kids. About this, Kreider writes:

Judging from the unanimity with which parents preface any gripe about children with the disclaimer, “Although I would never wish I hadn’t had them and I can’t imagine life without them,” I can’t help but wonder whether they don’t have to repress precisely these thoughts on a daily basis.

I can imagine my life without them. I can imagine the things I’d do on a whim. I can imagine empty, quiet weekends and uninterrupted conversations. But I didn’t choose a childless life, just as I didn’t choose the corporate life. And though I keep doing it, I know that looking back to evaluate these choices is not a particularly productive use of my time. There’s no do-over, Kreider reminds us, “Life is, in effect, a non-repeatable experiment with no control.”

So I march forward, an anonymous person with a busy-lazy life, with two children who fill me up as much as they wear me out. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter which choices I made, as long as I own up to them and play them out fully, without the nagging voice of remorse – just the occasional, curious, mindful glance in the rear view mirror.

But let me just say this: I really really miss my secretary.