A couple of months ago I made plans to take a day off to take Finley and her sisters, on the last pre-k field trip of the year. I had the niggling suspicion that things would not go as planned. Sure enough, my schedule at work started to grind and churn, each day feeling more and more like a log jam bearing down on me. When the field trip day came I made sure that everyone still wanted to go.
Briar looked at me nodding, “Of course we do, Mom.” I smiled remembering her first day of school and the blur of firsts and lasts that followed.
Avery looked up at me after lacing her shoes. “Yeah, I want to go, I can tell them how much I know about beavers.” The timidity she began school with has been replaced by a brazen confidence, but her inimitable Averyness is still there in spades.
Finley said, “Girls, girls, listen, it’s going to be great. I will show you all my classmates. Right, mama?” She still struggles to make an r not sound like a w and when she wants to look serious she tucks her hair, that I used to pull in messy twists, behind her ears.
The thing I’ve learned over the nearly nine years I’ve been throwing this clay pot of working mom, is that I can’t plan for everything. The truth is that I navigate the school year with a combination of high heels, work gloves, and tissues for my tears. I sign up for some field trips, while others I don’t. Some days I snap pictures of every little thing, other days I put the 18th connect-the-dots worksheet from school into the recycling bin.
This particular field trip is one that I attended several years ago with Avery as the student and Fin as the tag-a-long sister. It was a buggy, overcast day. It was also the time when dragon flies hatch. I’m comfortable saying that I enjoy being in nature, but I am not a fan of living, breathing, flapping nature being on me. My attendance became legendary, as one teacher often reminded me at morning drop-off, “You were just so afraid of the bugs, weren’t ‘cha?” laughing and elbowing in my direction at morning drop off. Over time I stopped caring, playing along and laughing, “You bet, I’m a big, old bug hater.” There are other comments too, “You won’t forget Pajama Day this year, will ya? No, you’re a good mom, that time you forgot you ran right out and bought some.” I wince, owning that details slip through the cracks when a backpack travels in different cars to and from home, school, Nana’s and home again and between dinner, bedtime, and the morning sprint.
But do we have to go back time after time and replay it? Monday we did. She greeted us with a huge shout to the other parents, “Look at Amanda, she’s got a whole pack. Remember the time you came and you were so afraid of the bugs? She’s prepared this year!” I laughed and brandished our Bite Back bug repellent.The big girls raced across the beach busting with pride that as the oldest kids they could tear away from the pack.
As Finley played, the teacher came over and said, “You made it? Remember when you had to miss Avery’s graduation? Remember how upset you were?” then she just walked away. I looked out at Briar and Avery, not wanting to reveal just how fully her words had knocked the breath out of me. It was three years ago. I’d had an awards ceremony to attend for work. Yes, I was disappointed, but we worked through it as a family. I attended the rehearsal with Sean and Finley, we arranged for Nana and Jeannie to accompany her to her official ceremony. I could show more pictures, share more stories, but somehow that doesn’t matter. Other moms swat at the bugs, but I get singled out.
I don’t know when we started graduating from every grade, celebrating every obscure holiday with gift bags and costumes. I don’t know when it became ok to judge parents for not going to every single event. Who gave the green light to the idea that one contribution is worth more than another? We pay for preschool programs to enrich our children’s minds, expand their social experience, and begin to establish a comfort with the concept of parents going away and coming back, right? Instead, here we are, conducting a twisted neener-neener game. I admit that I have had my moments of envy and even a bit of resentment when I see stay-at-home moms chatting in the parking lot, rather than rushing from one place to the next. At the end of the day, we all have laundry to do, toilets to clean, and tweezers to find.
Part of what motivates me during my work day is my desire to be a strong role model for my girls. I don’t want them to think that every opportunity in life is going to come with clear pros and cons so that they can make snap decisions and never second guess themselves. Life isn’t like that. It’s beautiful and magnificent and yours for the taking, but it isn’t black and white. An auditorium seat that one person perceives to be empty, may very well be the symbol to a beaming kid that their mama is out receiving an armload of trophies that represent the efforts and triumph of the entire family.
I am a mom who works.
Briar, Avery, and Finley are my first thought in the morning and the last thank you on my lips at night. If that leaves doubt in someone’s mind about how I feel about them in the moments in between, then so be it.
The truth is, while the judgement genuinely hurts, I’m caring less and less about what someone else thinks of me.
The concept of unplugging is a thing of beauty. Set aside the phone, close the laptop, hide the remote, and give yourself completely to the three dimensional. The pressure to unplug and the judgement of not doing so has become an oppressive blanket. The divide between those of us who use the online realm for work and those who don’t is a rapidly growing chasm. Essays on “That mom at the playground” abound. Luckily, of all the things I take to heart and struggle to overcome, this kind of judgement isn’t one of them.
I want to unplug. I set my phone to silent and tuck it beneath the lamp in my bedroom. The tv isn’t an issue, it holds no real draw. Laptop, stowed. And yet, it isn’t the pulse of social media or the persistent tickle of email that tether me. All of that I can easily power down, it is the hamster wheel in my head that runs toward closure and things making sense that I cannot stop. My mind, no matter how pressing the details of my life are, seems unable to terminate the way it is set on repeat to fix things.
“Once I figure this out, I can let it go.”
Friday was a bad day full of loose ends and unpleasant moments. Sean had a late night gig and the weekend was forecasted to be a wash out. I came home in a bit of a fog, wasted from the week and filled with a gnawing dread of being cooped up with the girls just as spring fever had really set in for all of us. Around 6 o’clock Sean took the big girls to their piano lessons and I went about making dinner while half-heartedly playing family with Finley. I put meat in a marinade for Sean to grill and chicken in the oven for the girls. It was a classic case of going through the motions, not because I wasn’t interested, but because as unplugged as I thought I was, I wasn’t.Lately my plug has been broken, irrevocably stuck in the on position.
After dinner, Sean gone and the steep climb of bedtime looming, I walked out of the kitchen and found a pile of discarded cardboard boxes. Suddenly all three girls were upon me. Boxes, you see, incite in my girls a kind of excitement and wonder rivaled only by bubble wrap. “Can we have those? Can we have every single one of them?” They were breathless and purposeful and, I saw quite clearly, filled with undiluted hope.
They carefully inspected the boxes, turning them this way and that to determine their potential. They flirted with fighting, but kept moving, tearing out of the room exclaiming over the superiority of their picks. I puttered past the stairs and in to the laundry room, so much laundry, I turned back. Finley called to me from upstairs. She wanted me to play. I feared being distant, because at five she would prefer that I not play if I am only going to gaze off into space or check my phone. I trudged up the stairs thinking I’d play for a couple of minutes and then start bedtime.
At the top of the stairs I felt myself cross a line. The girls were scattered, each doing her own embellishment to the cardboard. They were getting along and I suddenly understood how intimate this was, how sacred our home can be if I let it. I didn’t want ghosts here, couldn’t abide the thought of the bitterness I have roiling around so close to these girls. Protecting my family goes beyond the surface, because everything I carry inside of me, I bring back to them.
“Girls, what do you say we build a fort around you and actually design the boxes? I even have another box downstairs that I can cut to make a privacy wall.”
They tried not to look surprised. They tried not to rush me in their excitement. They watched me and waited, three sets of blue eyes and three pairs of hands, still small enough to catch my breath. I gathered supplies, unpacked fabric, and set about transforming the hallway and my heart. Each loop around the banister loosened my shoulders, each squeak of the marker against cardboard cleared my head. I watched them purse their lips and grip the scissors. Dots of green and smears of blue were everywhere, on noses and cheeks and even the carpet. I felt a kind of Christmas morning giddiness. We kept going, with Beso curled up happily on a stair and bedtime miles from any of our minds.
Sometimes things don’t make sense and letting go has to come from a place that allows the reality that nothing I could have done would have changed the outcome, other times letting go can only really be found in holding on to something else.
Holding on to my dear life and loving it.
I’ve never been good at asking for help. I’m still not. It’s no secret that I’ve been working my way through some things lately. I’ve been circling and searching for something, but the truth is that I just can’t do this one alone.
I want to find expressive, profound words for what has happened, not the bad stuff, but the good stuff. I needed help. There was a huge mountain of dread between me and asking for help, but the other night I did. And just like that I wasn’t alone.
I think all I really need to say is thank you.
I was standing with my back against a brick wall and talking to a colleague. The dressing room mirror shone in the afternoon light and I could see my reflection as she asked, “You ok? This whole thing is aging you. It really is, I mean you can see it,” and she motioned at my face as she shook her head. The whole thing was so over the top it felt like a bad sit-com.
I winced. I wouldn’t say something like that, even on my worst foot-in-the-mouth kind of day. It hung there in the air between us and I thought of the wrinkle between my eyes, the way my cheeks have hollowed and the way that at certain times my shoulders have gathered—not in the strong way that you are taught in Pilates to isolate muscles, but in the self-protective way that you do when you try to make yourself smaller, when you try to make an awful moment pass more quickly. I effortlessly catalogued in my mind the spots on my face and the new cowlick that gyrates with frizzy, maddening abandon front and center above my face.
I raised my head and looked myself dead in the eye in the mirror, measuring my words before letting them out, because one path would go irrevocably to a place without return and the other would lead to tears. Luckily as I worked through my hurt and defeat, she filled the silence with more words. It was over, but the moment trudged alongside me for the rest of the day. I manage and control so many things in a day that some twisted part of me seems to think that I should be able to control me. I should be able to overcome tendencies toward, if not complete self-loathing, dissatisfaction with my appearance.
Lately though, I can’t.
I cannot leap out of bed like I used to.
I cannot shake a hurt like I I have before.
It is hard to not feel less-than because I am not effortlessly vivacious.
I do not fill things out like I used to—not a top, not a bottom, and not a room. I find myself, despite my best efforts, looking furtively around restaurants and other public venues. I flinch when I sense one of the young sparklers walking by. I don’t want to feel envy, I don’t want to catch wandering eyes that make me think of what seems like the inevitability of temptation. My husband adores me, my daughters worship me, and yet…I compare myself to days that have passed rather than looking forward to days that are to come, or simply the days that are here. It deflates me and adds to the relentless cycle of feeling disappointed in myself.
“The world is as we are.”
“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
Henri J.M. Nouwen
I realize that this is a bit of a recurring theme, but as I look toward the days ahead, I am not going to beat myself up—not for being older than 25, not for wishing my skin was more taut, and not for spending time trying to work through these feelings. Just as my youngest faces the exhilarating milestone of kindergarten, I will reach milestones. There is no handbook for turning forty or for tucking your diaper bags away, stopping breastfeeding after 6 years, and realizing that you and the world have changed.