Mar 10 2010

Of Whales and Women

We trudged along the sandy path lined with scallop shells, following it to the edge of the camp and down a narrower path leading to the beach. We were a symphony of sporting gear: our waterproof pants shooshing back and forth in rhythm with each step, our knee-high rubber wellies marching out a hollow gahlump-gahlump percussion as we crossed the sandy flats to the rocks where the pangas were moored. Each one took her turn sitting on the gunwale, swinging legs over into the small boat until six plus the guide were situated on the flat bench seats and Ranulfo, the driver – whose father was the first person to touch a whale in this lagoon – pushed off and drove out, away from the shore.

A 5-minute open-throttled ride until we reached the point at the edge of the lagoon, where the boat slowed and stopped, radioing “Tico, Tico, Tico!” for permission to enter. Tico, guardian of the lagoon, squawked his okay on the radio and waved back to us from his chair on the shore. The panga motored forward and into the dark green waters of the lagoon.

This escape, a whale-watching trip to Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, was the inspired idea of my friend the Fiesta Nazi, a woman who needs no excuse to abduct her gal-pals for a good adventure, and yet she used the occasions of a rather monumental birthday and International Woman’s Day as reasons to invite a gaggle of girlfriends from every stage of her life to join her in the Baja in search of gray whales. Imagine a remote camp on the beach with 18 wildish whale-smitten women. The days were sunny and slow, pivoting around patient excursions into the lagoon to watch for whales. Happy happy happy hour started at sunset and stretched through dinner and late into the night. Many of us, liberated from motherly duties, took advantage of these un-dutied days, as did those not encumbered with family appendages, equally happy for the leisure. One imagines that the crew at this camp – kind and most attentive – didn’t expect a pack of women to consistently stay up as late, drink as much beer and generate as much sexually innuendoed humor as we managed to stir up. Plus we were crazy about the whales.

“Look, eleven o’clock,” someone shouted, pointing just left of the bow. A football field’s length away, the shiny body of a gray whale thrust itself straight up out of the water. “That’s a spy-hop,” said our guide, José. Everyone in the boat fell silent, probably pondering what it would be like to be able to push more than a third of your own body weight vertically out of the water without touching the sea floor. “Why do they do that?” someone finally asked. José’s answer became one of the trip mottos: “Because they can.”

“Three o’clock!” All heads turned to starboard. About 15 meters from the boat, a 20-foot long gray whale dipped out and back into the water. Ranulfo turned the nose of the boat and inched forward respectfully, taking us to get a closer look. “That was the baby,” José said, “now look for the mama.”

Everyone sat upright, on vigil, heads left to right scanning the water, cameras poised. The sea held its breath like we held ours, until a long thick mammal came into view, submerged, hovering – maybe even teasing us – before breaking through the surface and baring her knuckled spine.

She was in no hurry. Her thick spotted body skimmed the water in first gear, turning slightly just before she disappeared, leaving only an odd rounded footprint into which the waves could not penetrate. Ranulfo cut the engine so we heard only the waves lapping against the wooden panga. We sat, frozen, for the longest, quietest minute. Just when I had given up, certain they had swum beneath us and far away, both whales, mama and baby, sliced open the surface in tandem, gliding in slow-motion through the water only a few meters from our boat. The mother’s body was thick and spotted, decorated with patches of barnacles. The baby whale – José estimated it was a month old – was smoother, newer, no discoloring on the skin. It had not yet picked up the marks that scar and give character to an older whale, the markings that mamas (and women of a certain age) collect over time, the wear and tear and bumps and barnacles that come from navigating an ocean from one lagoon to another season after season.

The timing of this trip was not uncomplicated. When I made the decision to attend, I did not know that I would spend three weeks away from home this winter, caring for my mother. I engaged in a serious debate with myself to decide if this trip was still doable. I was not sure I’d have the stamina. I wondered about the wisdom of a third transatlantic aller-retour in 6-week window of time. I was also a little bit afraid that escaping to a secluded camp with no technology to distract me would be too much of an opportunity to confront my grief. Running about and being busy is further protection from the pain that still feels so close, a long shadow just below the surface waiting to breach.

But De-facto and his mother offered their full support, so I hugged my little girls goodbye, again, and boarded the plane to find myself removed from the strain of the recent chain of events and enveloped in the rounded embrace of the best friends of one of my best friends: clever, accomplished, adventuring women, in abundant possession of wise words, crazy spirits and a good dose of humor; well keeled women unafraid to camp outside and live out loud.

On the other side of the lagoon, we cruised directly into the patch of birded water filled with flocks of gulls and terns and egrets, and the occasional pelican with his beak pressed shut as if keeping a secret. Some of the birds took wing as we sped by; others paid us no attention, perching nonchalantly on the surface of the water. Beside us, three dolphins danced in and out of the water like lords-a-leaping, keeping pace with the boat. Just ahead, a whale breached the surface of the lagoon, twisting and slapping the water with its fluke as it slowly dove back in. It felt as though the birds and whales and dolphins had opened a door to us, pulling us fully into their watery world. We were no longer observing the wildlife around us; we had joined it.

What a privilege to spend a string of days with nothing to do but pet a whale’s nose and look her right in the eye, go for long walks on the beach, eat fish tacos and drink shots of mezcal or cold cervezas from a continuously re-stocked ice-chest. Each day, a little of the weight of these last weeks was chipped away. Each day, a few salty tears fell back into the ocean. Each day, I felt a little more restored. I return to my world, hopeful.

Nothing makes up for the loss of one’s mother, but the healing company of so many compassionate middle-aged sisters sure helps. Like the mama whales, we’re all a little bit worn; we’ve collected the marks that build character. We’ve endured the wear and tear and bumps and bruises that come from caring and crying, from coaxing ourselves through the odd passages of life that test and jeer at us. We keep swimming forward with grace, navigating what life hurls at us, season after season, each one of us breaching and spy-hopping and dancing in the water in our own unique way, because we can.

Feb 7 2010

Solemn Fold

I pinched the frozen clothespins to liberate the sheet from the line of rope that spans the back porch. The sheet was ice-cold; it’d been hanging outside on the porch all afternoon. I wrapped the yards of damp cotton over my shoulder, trying not to drag anything on the floor as I pulled the rest of the laundry – pillowcases and a few dishtowels – off the line and made my way back inside. I draped the sheet over the three chairs evenly placed beside the dining room table. It will hang there overnight, to shed the last of the dampness and to get warm and fully dry before it is ready to be folded.

This is a ritual that has been enacted in this house, on this porch and in this dining room, for more than fifty years. The tumble-dryer in the laundry room is not unused, but the sheets in this house have never seen the inside of it. No matter what season, my mother’s sheets are always line-dried.

“I need your help with the sheets,” my mother would say, a habitual plea generating the big eye roll from any one of her three children. This might be our Sisyphean task – second only to ironing my father’s handkerchiefs – a pesky chore we were commanded to do and our mother would not tolerate a half-hearted execution. We were guided step by step. “Put your finger in the dart. Pull it, tight. Stretch the sheet first. Flip it and fold. Now walk toward me…”

We found explicit sheet-folding instructions from a mid-twentieth century woman’s magazine, tucked in the back of some drawer. Was this how she learned her special way to fold fitted sheets? Or did she clip it because it matched the technique she’d acquired or invented herself? She would never say. But her systematic laundering and folding of sheets is part of our family lore.

Just picture the linen closet: towels on one shelf, sheets on the other – all squared, fluffed and folded, even towers of perfectly creased cotton. And when you go to make a bed – any bed in the house – the fitted bottom sheet opens itself for the bed, effortlessly, without a single wrinkle.

And the smell, the perfume of all the things that fly in the country air: cut grass, morning dew, apple blossoms in the orchard, summer rain, fecund grapes before the harvest, an icy winter storm. I need only to throw one of those freshly aired sheets over my shoulder or to slip myself into a just-made bed, to re-live my entire childhood with one inhale. Those sheets are an olfactory map of my earliest years.

During the last months of her life, when she was weakening, my mother’s friends admonished her to stop. She should save her energy. It was too easy to fall on the porch, too cold to be out hanging the sheets on the line. She should use the dryer. But my mother persisted. She has always preferred the feel and scent of her line-dried sheets.

This last week, my sister and brother and I washed her sheets every other day, taking turns pulling them from the washer and hanging them outside on the line and bringing them in to warm before folding. We all have the intuition – inherited, no doubt – about when they have been on the line long enough, or when, after hanging inside, they are ready to fold. One of us would call the other into the dining room and in tandem we’d lift the sheet and stand, facing each other, following the steps as though our mother was whispering them to us from the middle of her steady, uninterrupted slumber in the other room.

It is unspoken, but we all know why we’ve done this. This is still her house. We honor her with every load of laundry. Each time the nurse’s assistant came to give a sponge-bath and change the bed, we knew that my mother, even in a semi-conscious state, would be comforted by the familiar perfume of her porch-dried sheets. It was part of our vigil.

Then, this morning, my mother took her last breath.

My brother – her son, the doctor – checked her vital signs. I reached for my iPhone to note the official time of death. My sister wrapped her arms around me as I began to cry. We waited for a long stretch of time, watching to be sure that she would not take another breath, that this wasn’t just some irregularity, that this was the end. When we were certain, we kissed her goodbye, one at a time, and pulled up the sheet to cover her motionless
chest, a sheet that, once they came to take my mother’s body away, was washed and hung on the line to dry. A sheet that, tonight, before bed, we brought in and draped over the backs of the dining room chairs to get warm and fully dry. A sheet that, tomorrow, we will pull and stretch tight, folding it solemnly, like a prayer.

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.
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.
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.

Jul 16 2009

Red Right Return

They poured me into the taxi. Waved goodbye, wistfully, as they do every year – my gang of fiesta friends – chagrined that I must leave when there are still two more days of San Fermin to go. But I have never stayed until the pobre de mi at midnight on the 14th of July. It’s not that I have to rush across the border to celebrate the French national holiday, it’s that Short-pants’ birthday is the 13th of July, and this is an occasion I choose not to miss.

I had good long cry as Juan-Jose, my annual driver, navigated the taxi out of Pamplona, consoling me, “Don’t cry, next year will come quick!” My Spanish isn’t sufficient to explain to him the complexity of my tears; a mix of sadness and utter exhaustion, but also gratitude and joy. “They are not all bad tears,” I told him, “es alegria.” He threw his head back and smiled; now he understood.
Alegria is a Spanish word that, like many words between languages, doesn’t have an exact translation. The best I can offer, my personal interpretation, is a moment of feeling unfettered bliss.

Later in the TGV train hurtling through the French countryside, I reluctantly removed from my neck my red pañuelo, the uniform of the fiesta, and tucked it in my bag. I nodded in and out of sleep, hoping to recover as much as I could before the reunion with my family. One year I booked my departure for the morning of the 13th, figuring at least I wouldn’t miss her whole birthday; I’d get home in time for a dinner celebration. I was barely awake for the meal and collapsed into a sweaty, detoxifying sleep immediately after cake and presents. Since then, I’ve made it a practice to leave Pamplona on the day prior to the famous birthday.

As the train approached Angouleme — the stop closest to our country house where I would meet up with my peeps — I heard the conductor’s announcement forbidding anyone to depart from the train. I rushed through the corridor, car by car, to find him. “But you have purchased a round-trip ticket to Paris,” he scolded me, “why would you want to get off here?” I tried to explain that I didn’t think it would a problem just to get off the train early. “But in order to take advantage of your inexpensive ticket, you may not change your destination. It’s not permitted.”

If I played by his rules, I’d have two more hot, sticky hours on the train to Paris, with slim chances of making a U-turn on a train back to Angouleme the same night. The actual birthday wasn’t until the next day, but after leaving the fiesta early, damn it, I wasn’t planning to miss even a minute of her celebration.

“But I have to be there for my daughter’s birthday. I cannot miss it.” The tears that came now, no longer the result of alegria, but of exasperation – and admittedly, some artistry. The conductor, a peculiarly precise man, reviewed my ticket, shook his head from side-to-side more than once, but finally agreed to let me off the train if I paid a penalty fee, for which he even gave me a receipt. He accompanied me to the door and used a special key to unlock it and let me off the train. He did, at least, help me with my luggage.

De-facto shaved during my 10-day absence, so it was like being greeted by a young, new lover. Without his goatée, his smile seemed wider, broader. Another man might be grumpy about his girl going solo to the world’s greatest party. But he’s not another man. And he managed to get a few days biking with a friend, courtesy of a well-timed visit by his mother.

A hundred questions on the drive home. How were the girls? Good. How were the bulls? Good. We took turns telling stories about our week apart. Did I tone my tales down, not to sound like I was having too much fun?
table_setMaybe a little. But I also didn’t tell him about the hard part: that lonely wave that hits me every year, mid-fiesta, where in a fit of excess and fatigue, I lay in bed too drunk and too tired to sleep and in that moment I’m sure that I have forsaken my family for this fiesta and nobody in Pamplona likes me either. The boom-boom-boom that goes all night in the street makes quieting this discourse impossible. I’ve come to learn that it’s just a passage; in the morning, in the sunlight, I’m greeted at the Bar Txoko or at breakfast on the Calle de la Merced by one of many friends – old and new – who remind me that I am not alone in this world.

When my daughters heard the car pull up in front of our old run-down stone farmhouse, they ran toward it at full speed, laughing and screaming, jubilantly, “Mama, Mama! You’re home! We missed you!” I was pummeled with kisses and hugs, all of which helped to remind me that the San Fermin fiesta is not the only source of alegria.

Jun 15 2009

That Might Change

“Then I’m not your child anymore!” Buddy-roo screamed it at me.

This was after I refused her a DVD movie viewing during breakfast. She stuck out that bottom lip and stomped away.

“That might change,” Short-pants said to her.
“No it won’t,” argued Buddy-roo.
“You can’t be sure.”
“Yes I can.”
“Well, that might change, too.”

How does Short-pants know such things? With absolute certainty she answers her little sister’s angry attack (at me) with a response that sounds like it’s being channeled. Who lives inside her? Some kind of Buddha?
I ask her how she finds these wise words. “Did you think of it? Did you hear somebody say that?”

“I just heard it in my head.”

Last week I asked her what she wanted for her birthday. She said she needed a new pencil eraser for school. Okay, I agreed, but what else, what would you like for you, that’s for fun? She had to stop and think about it. “Well, I’d like a new princess dress, and I can share that with my sister.”

She doesn’t get this angelic genetic coding from me.

When Short-pants was in the hospital – years ago, when she was three – the day before her second brain surgery, the neurosurgeon who was to perform the operation granted us a meeting in her office. Short-pants had already been in the Intensive Care Unit for nearly four weeks, after being rushed there in a coma caused by a tumor that turned out to be a brain abscess. The drugs that were supposed to shrink the abscess weren’t working, so the doctors had decided to operate again. The surgeon placed the ominous MRI negatives up on the florescent board and traced the outline of the large circular mass just behind the forehead; it looked like a hurricane on a weather map, gathering strength as it moved in on the coast. Then she described to us how they would simply carve it out and extract it from my daughter’s little head.

“And afterward, what will be left?” I asked.
“Nothing, just an empty space.”
“What will you fill it with?” De-facto asked.

From the look on her face, this baffled the surgeon. Probably not something she’d been asked before. But she managed a good recovery: “What would you have me put in?”

Without missing a beat he told her: “love, strength and wisdom.”

The surgeon softened, and let loose the smile she had tried to conceal. And then, it seems, she did just as he asked.

Jun 1 2009


The streets of Freedom are wide and tree-lined, an open road to a late afternoon swim. Or else they’re narrow, winding and cobble-stoned, a labyrinth in the middle of an age-old village. They’re filled with festive, musical people. Or still and quiet, greeting a new morning. However you want it, it’s like that in Freedom. I know. I used to live there.

In Freedom, there are no children clamoring for you to attend to them. Nobody knocking on the bathroom door. Nobody wakes you up earlier than you’d like in the morning. Nobody needs you to “watch this.”
In Freedom, you never have to rush home. When an old friend you haven’t seen in ages stumbles into the bar just as you were about to relinquish your stool to head out, you can change your mind on a dime. Step backward and keep your seat. Order another round.

You can go to the train station and buy a ticket to anywhere without having to tell anyone where you are going or for how long. Not because you intend to do anything so very secret or illicit, but because you feel like being anonymous or alone, just to have a little privacy.

In Freedom you can stay out all night and sleep in all morning and heat up last Thursday’s pasta in the fry pan with butter and eat it all yourself, right from the pan, in front of the TV. You can wear your pajamas all day and nobody comments. You can play Creed or Coldplay or Puccini at full volume, you can belt it out with Ella singing Cole Porter and nobody looks at you cross-eyed. You can clean up or leave a mess; you’re free to do whatever you want.

I haven’t been there in years. I do an occasional drive-by and I think about strolling down those avenues lined with nostalgia. What hangs from the trees are long strings of selective memory. It seems like a paradise from where I am now. But it wasn’t always so rosy. Freedom was wild and spontaneous and occasionally decadent. It was also – more often than I’d like to admit – a bit lonely.

I miss Freedom. But I don’t live there anymore. I don’t even think I could go back. I just pass by it every once in a while and I remember, with fondness, the mostly-good old days.

May 25 2009

Other Mothers

My friend’s daughter ran into the kitchen, full of tears. A gang of girls followed with widened eyes, stepping over each other’s words, their explanations filled with proclamations insisting it wasn’t their fault that one of them had fallen from the swing. My friend kneeled before her daughter
swingsetand in the softest voice, the one reserved for addressing bumps and boo-boos, she made the appropriate inquiries and offered all the standard reassurances. I stood on the other side of the kitchen table, watching. There was nothing for me to do, no reason to interject myself into a situation fully under control.

Like a magician pulling a quarter from behind the ear of an unsuspecting spectator, my friend reached to the shelf behind her daughter and produced a roll of decorated bandages. It was Hello Kitty or some character that delights young girls. She offered one to her daughter, who really didn’t need it, but as all mothers – all parents – know: even the mildest of scratches demand TLC, and this is easily done in the form of an unnecessary band-aid. And then she offered a bandage to each of the other girls.

When I saw her do this, I said to myself, “Brilliant. Band-aids all around.” I wouldn’t have thought of that.
Later, sitting in her garden (it was a weekend get-away to the country) taking in the sun and drinking from a fresh pot of coffee, my friend admitted to me that often in situations like this little incident with her daughter, she feels at a loss, not knowing exactly what to do. I knew better than to say something stupid like, “but you did a great job.” She wasn’t asking for that. She was telling me, out loud, what I suspect every mother feels more often than we dare to admit.

When I told her how often I feel the same way, she was surprised. Like I have any confidence or expertise in mothering? “But you make it look easy,” she said. This just reminds me that I have no idea what I convey to rest of the world. Inside I feel like a loser; my history with mothering is anything but confident and easy.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you know that I am in awe of my children. But you also know that I struggle, always needing more time to myself, always feeling like I’m treading water or falling behind with my
out_the_train_windowown sanity; and I will get to it, really, after I fill out those school forms or organize the babysitting schedule for coverage while I’m on a trip or pick up that present for the neighbor’s birthday party on Wednesday. On top of that, they run to me crying and I’m supposed to know how to make it all better? But what happens when I feel like running and crying to someone to make it all better? Oh and the guilt: that there’s something wrong with me because I don’t love every moment of being a mom, or because it isn’t effortless for me?

I remember when the girls were toddlers, I endured tedious play dates, where any semblance of adult conversation was interrupted with patronizing reminders to our children to share their toys. When we did finally get to finish a sentence, it wasn’t complete: the complaints were minimized, our desperation hidden, the “unacceptable” feelings buried. We only allowed ourselves to speak of the joy of mothering. To say anything else, I suppose, would be to rock the very foundation of our society.

But I’ll just say it now: I have no clue what I’m doing and it’s no picnic. But I’ve stopped beating myself up about it. I’m so shooting in the dark, with occasional guidance from a useful book or a good friend. I’m making it up as I go along, just like all the other mothers.

Feb 24 2009

You’re supposed to feel

Somebody always has something to say about how you’re supposed to feel. Once I worked for a man with bad hair, and he accused me of being too sensitive. “How much is sensitive enough?” I asked him. A lover once told me I was too mental, “You can’t think through your life, you have to feel it.” Both of these comments came at about the same time. I didn’t know what to make of it; was I too feeling, or not enough?

When I was pregnant – this seems like ages ago – I was informed by others, often complete strangers, how I ought to feel about becoming a mother. There were, apparently, designated emotions of excitement, anticipation, and joy, and the fact that I felt other feelings like dread, fear and suffocation – not on the condoned list – meant I’d crossed a line, putting the sacred institution of motherhood at risk. “Oh but you must be so excited,” people would correct me, denying me my inalienable right to feel miserable.

So I felt it anyway, just more quietly.

This inspired me, once I hatched small beings into the world, to be very mindful of the casual language we end up using around feelings. “Don’t be sad,” we say unconsciously to a small pouting child. What is that about? Telling a child that the rush of sadness that came over you just now is somehow wrong, you shouldn’t feel it? You have to be one of those happy shiny people all the time?

Not that we should overindulge their sadness or anger. But sometimes, doing a little bit of nothing does the trick. Emotions, like waves, follow their course, crashing on to the shore and receding back into the larger body of water. One wave follows the next, and they just keep coming.

Yesterday Short-pants was angry at me. She made this obvious by putting her feelings in writing and slipping the large note loudly under my door. I didn’t try to talk her out of it. “You are really angry,” I said, like I learned in
mean_mamaa book about how to talk with kids. And just like the book promises, if you wait a beat, the whole story pours out about what she wanted and what Buddy-roo wanted and what I did and didn’t do…the whole crisis is illuminated. The anger, once expressed, begins to dissipate, sometimes merely from the fact of not being denied.

Maybe anger has a half-life, and half of it goes away when you get that it’s just plain okay to feel that way for a little while.

But what about me? What do I do with my pent up I’m-fed-up-with-all-this? How do I get to express my longing? Or my sadness, my fear? Little eyes are always watching. I used to lock myself in the bathroom, just to have a moment alone to process. But little fists learn quickly how to knock incessantly. And besides, why should I shield them from what’s real?

Of course I try to contain the more difficult feelings, but when I can’t keep them in, I simply don’t. I’ve stormed into the girls’ room in a rage, their little faces shocked and their little bodies recoiling from the force of my angry words. I’ve backed up against the wall and let my body slide down it until I’m sitting with my forehead against my knees, heaving tears. About these outbursts I do not apologize; I explain. Later, when the feeling has ebbed, we sit on the stairs and I say something like “Mama was pretty angry, I wish I hadn’t been so loud that I frightened you,” or “Mama was pretty sad, wasn’t I?”

But what if something happens and you don’t feel anything? Like when you’re supposed to feel and you can’t figure out how? Or you’re just, numb? Can they see that too? Which is more damaging to them, I wonder: to witness rage, fear, and sadness or to watch their mother stoically stand at the counter, sponging over the cutting board in a circular motion again and again and again, just to get at the nothing that’s brewing within?

Jan 29 2009

Strike This

France was on strike today.

If only I could go on strike.

I wouldn’t have to get up early in the morning, in the dark, in the cold, to get you ready for school. If I could go on strike, I wouldn’t even set the alarm. I wouldn’t offer you pancakes or egg-in-the-hole, or the coveted, imported Cheerios. I wouldn’t lay out your clothes, or pretend to nod approvingly when you adorn your own (mismatched) outfit. I wouldn’t search the house for your hairbrush, hidden in the drawer by the Play-doh. I wouldn’t squeeze toothpaste on your toothbrush and leave it poised on the sink. I wouldn’t hunt for misplaced schoolbooks or slip the package of biscuits in the side pocket of your backpack for your morning collation. I wouldn’t dig out a pair of matching mittens and squeeze them over your tiny, disobliging wrists. I wouldn’t see you to the door or steady you on the way down the stairs. I wouldn’t hold your tiny paws in my hand when it’s my turn to walk you to school.


If I went on strike, the laundry pile would grow radioactively, a virus of miniature, mismatched socks, inside-out cotton tights with stripes and hearts, turtlenecks with chewed sleeves and chocolate stains. I would not check your vaccination schedule. I would not wait in line at the conservatory to sign you up for the solfège. I would not send in the form to get put on the list to have the right to telephone the office secretary next Tuesday between 9 and 11 o’clock in order to get on another list to be called back for an appointment for an interview to enroll you in the bilingual school.

If I were on strike, I wouldn’t sew buttons, I wouldn’t tie shoe-laces, I wouldn’t cut the crust off, get the ketchup out, put the juice in a sippy-cup, put the juice in a big-girl cup, get a straw, cut your meat, or don’t cut your meat. I wouldn’t read stories about pigs that eat hot buttered toast or little girls that live alone in hotel suites. I wouldn’t watch the Never Ending Story a never-ending number of times. I wouldn’t change the sheets when you throw-up in your bed in the middle of the night. I wouldn’t kiss boo-boos or find lost doudous, I wouldn’t scratch your back up-a-little-lower, I wouldn’t put band-aids on wounded, naked dolls. I wouldn’t study your artwork and ask thoughtful, enthusiastic questions before posting it on the refrigerator.

If I could only be on strike, I wouldn’t rush through the days to get everything done before the school pick-ups and the pre-dinner witching hour and evenings of bedlam and chatter.

If I could go on strike, oh, I’d linger in bed. I’d lay there dreaming an Egyptian thread count, and then a mid-to-late-morning rally to the cushioned couch where I’d sit and listen to the sun quietly spilling through the skylight, staring at the coffee cup that both my hands would wrap around, slowly smelling the strong aroma before each savored sip. If I could go on strike, I’d have time to do all the things I want to do and then I’d have more time, still, to do nothing.

Time that I would probably squander, spending those luxurious hours thinking about you, in your little bodies, wandering around your little worlds, wondering what or how you were doing.

When I thought I might lose you, there wasn’t enough time. This notion of time is my riddle. Now I know that time is not mine to have, it’s mine to give away; to parcel out without counting the minutes or moments. Going on strike might give me some respite, a slight slowing of time, just enough to catch my breath. But as time goes, there is never enough.