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 28 2011

The Gifted Bag

After the buzzer rang, I pressed the button that unlocks the door to the street downstairs without asking who was there. I knew it was Buddy-roo returning home after a spontaneous play-date-turned-dinner-and-homework-date with a friend in the neighborhood. Normally a social activity of this nature on a school night would raise eyebrows, but this one included homework support from a native French speaking parent, so it was allowed. No doubt they covered twice the ground in half the time.

I opened and left ajar the door to our apartment, so that after climbing the four flights of stairs she would not have to ring the doorbell and wait again. This is our typical letting-people-in-the-door routine. How long it takes to walk from the entrance, up the stairs to our door depends on the urgency and fitness of the arriver. When it’s one of the girls, if they don’t get distracted by a neighbor in the courtyard or on the stairs, it’s usually within 3 or 4 minutes that you can hear their little feet and out-of-breath voices as they enter the apartment and close the door behind them.

A good long five minutes went by without any little feet. I went out to check, leaning out the long window of the hallway to peer into the courtyard. No sight of Buddy-roo, but then the distinct sound of her crying in the stairwell below. I called down to her. Her friend’s mother – who happens also to be a friend of mine – answered back. “It’s okay. We’re just having a little situation down here.”

I looked out the window at the not-quite-night-sky settling in on the rooftops and chimneys. It’d been such a calm, peaceful evening. We’d been downright civilized, De-facto, Short-pants and I, reading together, quietly. The wailing at the bottom of the stairs, a harsh reminder of what had been missing, up until now.

I pattered down in my stocking feet to where Buddy-roo was standing, in the foyer with her friend, the two of them in angry tears. The friend’s mother looked up at me apologetically. I tried to telepath to her a look that said, “No worries, this could so easily have happened on my watch.”

The story spilled out. The purse, a tacky, pink, vinyl, Winx-merchandized accessory (I didn’t buy it for her – it was given to us) had allegedly been a gift from Buddy-roo to her friend during a play-date a few weeks ago. She’d forgotten about it, I’m sure, until she saw it again on this visit. She probably made a remark like, “Oh, I left my bag here,” causing the severe dropping of the jaw of her little friend, who’d thought it was a present to keep, which is probably how it was presented. The discussion turned debate, and then turned debacle. The lovely afternoon-into-evening play-date was ending in a big fight, all about where that bag should live.

I said the trash would be an excellent location. (Not out loud, though.)

The objective, at this point, was to calm the girls down so they could part, if not as friends, at least without tears. But this ugly purse was the stumbling block. Buddy-roo insisted it was a loan, not a gift. Her friend believed that it was hers to keep. Neither one of them would give an inch – they were absolutely stubborn – leaving the mothers to negotiate.

After a few halfhearted and unsuccessful tries at mediation – in retrospect how ridiculous that I even tried – I put my foot down. I was tired, it was late and this was annoying. “I don’t know what else to do, guys, we’ll have to sort this out later because it’s time for bed. Now.” I shrugged at the other mother, who I’m sure would have loved to have done the same 30-minutes before, but felt she ought to try to bring Buddy-roo home to us in happier spirits. I dragged my wailing daughter up the stairs. I didn’t even notice, until after she’d gotten into bed and I was doing my own straightening-up-before-bed ritual, that the purse had been on her shoulder at the time, so it’s ended up back on our property.

And it’s sitting there, that ugly pink bag with all those cheezy smiling characters on it, taunting me. In the morning after the girls leave for school and I’m all alone, it whispers to me, “whose am I?” It makes me feel compelled to take the high motherly moral ground, even though I’d like nothing better than to bury my head in the pillows of my bed and wake up when Buddy-roo is twenty-six. (No doubt, she would have appropriated all my jewelry while I was slumbering through her dramatic puberty and adolescence…)

I’m of two minds. The first: we have to have a talk about it, and Buddy-roo needs to either return the bag that she gifted to her friend or make a real apology and come to terms with the misunderstanding. The second: Just drop it. It’s a silly fight between two 7-year-olds and though I’m still thinking about it (as is my friend, the other mother) the girls have both forgotten it. Next time somebody “gifts” something, we simply need to step in and model how to clarify: is it a gift for good, or just a little while?

One is correct. The other is convenient.

What would you do?


Nov 22 2010

The Escape of Memory

Day-to-day, small details are so easily forgotten. Even those scribbled on a Post-it, logged in an on-line to-do list or occasionally even emailed to myself. Before I had children, my mind worked nimbly. Now it’s like a sieve. Yet all I had to do was set foot on Danish soil and so began a flood of memories. Driving through the elephant gates of the Carlsberg complex, faces of friends who drank that local beer with me, more than twenty-five years ago, return with precise detail. Deposited in front of Tivoli Gardens for a dinner with clients, I glanced down the street at the lights of Copenhagen’s town hall square, and the memory of the daily crossing of the Rådhuspladsen came rushing at me like a mad parade.

Not just the images, I remember a whole chorus of feelings: how I nearly skipped across the square, jubilant and alive for the sheer adventure of living in a foreign country, or other days plodding across its weathered stones, unbelieving that I could ever construct a life that would meet my expectations, or simply because I felt sad, lonely and far away from home.

(How I long to be lonely now! There is always someone in shouting distance, interrupting or needing my attention. What a luxury, those angst-filled lonely days!)

An extra day in Copenhagen was designated for a tour of that distant chapter of my life. It started with a local train to the central station, where the sight of my feet upon the tiles with their black on terra-cotta design recalled side-trips to other European capitals that returned me home to this station with a backpack full of dirty laundry and dozens of stories to tell. If you had asked me, last week, to describe these tiles I would have drawn a blank. Seeing them triggered memories of people and places I didn’t even know were still stored in the back corners of my brain.

When I was a student in Copenhagen, I spent a lot of time just walking and wondering. Now, so many years later I was doing the same, but this time desperately trying to remember where was the doorway I used daily, to enter my school. Or that balcony I used to lean over, outside the architecture studio, or a hidden passage that was my favorite shortcut. I found most of these things – with only minor effort – but searched in vain for my favorite Café Peder Huitfeldt. I managed to find at least three little squares that could have been the cozy, out of the way square where (I think) it stood. Did it close after all these years or did I just forget how to get to that hidden place?

The night before, sitting around the dinner table with the family that I lived with as a student – everyone had congregated to greet me – I was struck by how we all blended together in exactly the same way as we did all those years ago. We are grayer and thicker, apparently wiser, unquestionably older. It occurred to me that my when they hosted me, my Danish parents were several years younger than I am now. They remember things I do not, regaling me with stories of my former foolishness. What I do remember – exactly – is the floor plan of the house they lived in then, the curves of their leather chairs, the design of my bed, the color of the sheets upon it, the way we sat together at the dinner table, even the weave of the tablecloth.

How do I remember certain things and not others? I cannot remember his name, that older man working on the film about the Danish resistance, who spun me into turmoil by inviting me to stay and work on it. My sister, heeding my father’s request, wrote me a carefully crafted letter urging me to come home and finish college. I do not regret that I conformed to their wishes, it was right to graduate with the classmates I’d started with, and a small Danish film credit would not have made such an impact on my career. Now I remember very little of that man, of our exchanges, his offer. Did it really happen? I can feel all the feelings of that wrenching decision, as if they were last week’s crisis. But the names, details, geography – it all comes in spurts and usually with a surprise, like seeing a movie you haven’t watched in ages. What makes me remember some places exactly and others not at all? What brings some experiences to the surface viscerally intact, and others are foggy images that dissipate if I try to focus on them – if they’re even accessible to me at all.

I speak the middle-aged language my parents spoke, spaced with lengthy pauses as I try to recapture what I started to say but forgot mid-sentence. I call Short-pants by Buddy-roo’s name, and vice versa. I beckon the children to the table for lunch when I mean to say dinner. I can’t remember numbers I’ve just added in my head. I forget almost all things that are not written down. I attribute this benign aphasia to the natural forces of maternal dementia, but it’s not consistent. Sometimes my memory has perfect pitch, with every detail in place. How does my mind decide what should escape it? How does it determine what to remember?

At the edge of the Rådhuspladsen there sits a big bronze statue of Hans Christian Anderson gazing off into the distance. When I lived here I visited him often, hoisting myself up onto the base of the statue, leaning up against his ice-cold legs. At age twenty, I was convinced he was looking off into my future; in our imaginary conversations he would reassure me about its promise. This weekend, meeting him again, his gaze looked less hopeful, more reflective. Standing before him now it seemed he wasn’t looking off into the future at all. No, he was pondering the past, probably trying to place me, just barely remembering something from long ago – something close, vaguely familiar – nearly within his grasp, but not quite.


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.


Jul 31 2010

Yesterday and Today

Yesterday morning we made pink pancakes, played with the doll house and drew mandalas with colored pencils before I sat the girls down and explained. “Mama leaves tomorrow and she has a lot to do to get ready to go.” They nodded. They know it’s serious when I speak about myself in the third person. De-facto‘s out of town for a few days, so I needed a strategy to get some work done. I offered a barter: if they’d leave me uninterrupted until lunch time, then I’d take them to the pool at the Paris Plage in the afternoon. The prospect of swimming provoked whooping and hollering and they ran upstairs to the small attic rooms we call their universe and started to play. I installed myself at the kitchen table with my computer – that’s my universe I suppose – and dove in.

Today the alarm sounded just as the light filled my bedroom. I was sandwiched between my two girls, one of them snoring lightly and the other one burrowed deep beneath the covers. I maneuvered my way out of the sheets, over their little bodies and out of bed. I hated to pull myself out of their sleepy embrace, but my packed suitcase waited for me by the door. I had only to shower quickly and dress and wait for the babysitter to relieve me of my responsibilities.

Yesterday, despite our agreement, Short-pants and Buddy-roo both interrupted me no less than 2-dozen occasions, breaking my concentration and cutting my productivity in half. At first I responded politely but firmly: “Not now sweet.” Once again in the third person, “Mama’s working now.” Each interruption progressively more annoying, I found myself running my hands through my hair, the thing I do when I’m agitated.
I cursed my decision to keep them home. Had I insisted they go to the centre de loisir, I’d have had the whole apartment to myself for the whole day. But I didn’t want them to be gone all day, not on the eve a 2-week trip, and there is no half-day option at this French version of day-camp. So they stayed at home with me. There were more than a few moments when I regretted this decision.

Today I spent hours alone, navigating airport security lanes and the world of duty free. The long flight was nearly wordless, but for choosing pasta or chicken, or white or red, or coffee or tea. I read the IHT cover to cover, and further nourished myself with issues of The Atlantic and The New Yorker.
I watched two bad movies and accomplished a dozen little things: tallying my expenses, writing a letter, cleaning my computer desktop, reviewing important files. There was something satisfying about the silence, except I wasn’t entirely at ease. I missed my little girls. I wished they were close.

Yesterday I snapped, “What is it you don’t understand about the phrase leave mama alone so she can work?” Short-pants ran out of the room in tears and I felt like shit. I went to find her and apologize, not for my request but for my tone, and Buddy-roo cornered me. “Can I watch a movie?” “Non,” I said, curtly, which provoked pouting and crying and stomping out of the room after exaggerated proclamations about what I never let her do. The day wasn’t turning out as I’d planned.

Today a family with two wailing toddlers, a few rows ahead, put the entire cabin ill at ease. Passengers tossed uncomfortable glances at each other, wondering if this would continue through the whole flight. A steward tried to distract the children, but only heightened their cries. The mother visibly panicked and struggling to quiet her disruptive offspring. I took a deep breath and sent her vibes of patience and composure. Hang on, I told her silently, they’ll calm down once we take off. I closed my eyes and fell into a taxiing-on-the-tarmac sleep, very conscious of the fact that she could not enjoy the luxury of this little runway nap. I thanked the gods of air controllers that I was alone, and had no children with me who were thirsty, hungry, bored, needing to pee or puke or needing a stitch of my attention.

Yesterday they kicked and splashed in the pool, screeching with the glee that only children know. I’d grab Short-pants and spin her around several turns before lifting and throwing her up and out so she’d plunge back into the water. “My turn!” from Buddy-roo and she’d get the same treatment. We bobbed around together in our swimming caps, mother and daughters in sync and in step. Show me how you can swim. Throw me mama! Again! Our commands (both ways) asking not for obedience but for playfulness. After our swim, we strolled down the boardwalk that is the Paris Plage, eating ice-cream, telling corny knock-knock jokes and watching the boats in the Seine.

Today, waiting for my luggage by a carousel, I thought about Short-pants and Buddy-roo and what an interesting pair they make. One sweet, the other sly, they get on marvelously when they are not trying to bite each other. They weave in and out of my days, sometimes with ease and laughter, an hour later needing firm words and reprimands. They are a blast to be with or they are brutally banal. They are remarkably poised and independent, until they are clamoring for my attention and I can’t wait to extract myself from the never-ending-needing-of-me in stereo.

Last night, they resisted bedtime, knowing I would be leaving early this morning. I was looking down the barrel at at least four more hours of work and prep and packing, so I cut another deal: “Go to bed now without a peep, and when I’m done I’ll come get you both and you can sleep with me.” They bounded up the stairs and this time, I did not hear another word. At two a.m. when I’d done all I could do, I moved my suitcase into the hall, turned out the lights, turned down the sheets and fetched my girls, their long limbs hanging heavy as I carried each one down the stairs. Sleeping with them was a bit of a nightmare; they kicked and snored until dawn. Sleeping with them was a little slice of heaven; two angels curled on either side, nestling up to me in the night.

This is the paradox of motherhood. Yesterday they drove me nuts as much as they delighted me. Today I am restored by the lack of interruptions, but aching for their quirky humor and unbridled affection. It’s maddening. But the boundary between maternal bliss and discontent is not a straight line. It’s up and down and crooked with tricky hairpin turns. It’s a wild ride, and it’s the one I get to take every day.


Jan 14 2009

Aquafresh

My mother could never remember which toothpaste to buy.

She was not a stupid woman. She was extremely bright and capable. She enjoyed the professional respect of her colleagues, she was a working mother who could edit an entire magazine, direct a staff of a dozen people, meet deadlines, develop public relations strategies, fight off the politics of a male-dominated world, volunteer her service to several community organizations at once and still somehow manage to pick me up after school, drive me to piano lessons and float meetings, attending to all the administration of our household and get dinner on the table before my father came home from work.

But she couldn’t come home from the grocery store with the right toothpaste. She’d return with Gleem or Colgate, or Close-Up, anything but what I wanted. And I would admonish her as only a rotten teenager can.

toothpaste

It was beyond me how a woman so smart and accomplished could be so absent minded about such a simple thing as the brand of toothpaste that was clearly (at least to me) our family’s preference.

It wasn’t just the toothpaste. She’d confuse my friends’ names. She’d even confuse my name, sometimes calling me by my sister’s or brother’s names. She’d holler up the stairs, cycling through each one of our names until she got it right. My mom was one big eye-roll after another.

Not just my mom. My friends agreed, all moms were dull-witted. Maybe they were smart at their jobs, or smart when they read the newspaper or helped with a homework assignment. But otherwise, they couldn’t remember anything important. Moms were a joke. We loved them, but they were feeble-minded.

And now I’m one of them. I’m astounded at what my mind cannot hold. And I respect my mother more than ever before. Will I have to wait as many years for my daughters to have the same epiphany?