The Lost Daughter

People who read voraciously will tell you the book is always better than the movie. 

I take it one step further by requiring my children to read the book before they watch the film adaptation, a rule I usually follow myself.  But when I watched The Lost Daughter on Netflix, I did not realize the story came from a novel of the same name by Italian author, Elena Ferrante.  Fascinated, if slightly unsettled by the film, I did some research after viewing it and obtained the book. 

The movie touches on nearly every single note of the book, something that cannot be said for most film adaptations.  Even nuanced subtleties are included.  It is a book lover’s dream. 

Both are a conflicted mother’s nightmare. 

The main character, Leda, is a conflicted mother. 

With the main line of the plot centering on Leda’s solo beach holiday, one might assume that’s all behind her – but as Ferrante so deftly proves, the mother/child bond is one that pulls a thread through lives, years, generations. 

Leda’s holiday at the shore is a celebration; not of her daughters’ departure, but of her independence, of the absence of obligation.  Yes, she brings a bag of books to the beach to prepare for the upcoming year’s classes, but she “carried a wicker chair out to the terrace, and sat for a while to watch the evening descend on the sea” as her first act upon arrival, something she never would have been able to do when “for years every vacation had revolved around the two children.”

Leda enjoys one supremely relaxing day at the beach – before her past, in the form of a large Neapolitan clan, blocks her path to the water.  The group, both large in size and attitude, whose continual return to this same spot inspires a sense of ownership in them, reminds Leda of the extended family of her childhood from which she fled.  She remembers her mother’s abhorrence and yet ultimate adoption of their crude and violent ways.  The interactions of a young mother and daughter make Leda reassess the bonds she had with her own daughters. 

In an expert weaving of past and present, one mother/daughter pairing to another, Ferrante explores how polarity and magnetism can exist at the same time within maternal bonds: motherhood vs. selfhood, generational transference and connection, love vs. duty. 

A bedraggled doll covered in beach sand becomes a character as real and large as any of the humans.  She is the love Leda needs from her childhood, she is the care Leda aches to give her own children freely, she is the unquestioning fragility of the mother/child bond. 

Conflicted mothers want to know that walking away, that tending to their own needs and desires, though viewed as monstrous by the outside world, is worth the internal validation.  Leda’s mother threatened to do so many times (“You will never ever ever see me again”) yet never followed through.  Leda made a point to never utter those words, but actually did walk away.  Now the young mother Nina laments how “your heart shatters: you can’t bear staying together with yourself and you have certain thoughts you can’t say.”  She believes it will pass, comforted by the fact that Leda returned.  Yet, Leda answers, “With my mother it became a sort of sickness.  But that was another time.  Today you can live perfectly well even if it doesn’t pass.”  Ultimately, Leda cannot offer young mothers a satisfying response.  

Leda herself hasn’t found a solution.  Years after her own disjointed upbringing, a strangled happiness in motherhood and a thwarted success in academia – she finds herself drawn to the very things from which she was running.  Closing herself off ultimately opens her to the dangers of these present-day manifestations. 

Both the novel and film treatments of The Lost Daughter come across as haunting and unnerving.  There is an undercurrent of threat throughout: of loved ones leaving, of missed opportunities, of loss and bodily harm.  Sometimes the threat isn’t even apparent; there is just the feeling of dread.  There is a meditative melancholy to this story, much in keeping with the heavy machinations of life and communion Leda carries with her. 

At times, this story is even esoteric.  Given the central question at its heart – can a woman attain selfhood and motherhood in the same lifetime – this is the perfect paradigm.   It has haunted three generations in just this story and countless women throughout the world.  There is no clear answer.  There are many iterations of the lost daughter. 

Shadow Work

“What are you doing tomorrow?”

My twelve year-old often asks me this as we bid each other good night. 

After years of staying home amidst the push and pull of patriarchy vs feminism, I instantly sense a trap. 

Why do you ask?  Why do you need to know?  Who put you up to this?  What do you want me to do?  Are you insinuating that I do nothing with my day?  Do I need to account for all my time?

Her reaction the first time I came back at her made me realize, that while her query had triggered me, my tone was not meant for her.  She was simply wondering what mom was going to do while she spent the day at school.  She knew how her day would go, but not mine.  Perhaps it was also an acknowledgment of how much I do to take care of her and her sisters – so what did that entail when I wasn’t physically with them?  Maybe, hope of all hopes, she was actually wishing for/validating some sort of relaxation from or reward for my toils.  That’s most likely reaching, but she is empathetic for her age. . .

I chose to leave the workforce when my first children were small, when they needed full-time care.  Having four children, that time stretched to encompass the younger ones as they came along.  As they all began to spend more time out of the house, I remained at home because there were always varied schedules, sick days, afterschool obligations – and that was before the inconsistencies of COVID life.    

But as they get older, and I angle myself toward both personal and professional pursuits – though none as of yet in a structured or official capacity – I wonder if the assumption that I will always be there is stunting the growth of all of us.

I wonder if we (mothers, women, parents) set ourselves up for more work and less appreciation by being available to our children.  By being there every afternoon after school, do they assume we’re the snack purveyor, chauffeur, laundry service, backpack picker-upper?  By doing less – or by being home less, as in working – would they appreciate us and what we do more?  The only time they usually acknowledge what I do is when it’s not done.  So if they are left to do more things for themselves, would they appreciate when I do complete a task for them more?  Because of its special quality, its novelty, or unexpectedness? 

In supporting our children and being there for them, are we making them less able to actualize themselves? 

Don’t get me wrong, I feel the heft of the unloading of a day’s troubles in a walk home from the bus stop.  I cherish the teachable moments that occur as we unpack their belongings and experiences.  I revel in the jokes and laughter as we all come together again at the end of a long stretch of separation.  These are valuable moments – for me and, I hope, for them. 

But the in-between moments. 

The assumption that I will pick up the slack because I don’t answer to a bell-schedule or time-clock.  That the jeans/leggings/sweatshirt they love will always be in the drawer when they reach for it.  That I will unlock the door at the exact moment they reach for the knob even though they have a key hanging from a hook slung over their shoulder. 

Perhaps I am rehashing the existential loop of my own childhood/mother’s experience.  Perhaps I am perpetuating another generation of children who live in a world of the laundry fairy and the fairy godmother, who don’t see the magic beyond the end of their noses because it’s always been there; who don’t sense the wizard behind the curtain because they don’t look long enough to see it ripple – or aren’t allowed to approach and draw it back for themselves. 

Work/life is a balance.  Supporting our children so they can flourish while allowing and urging them to apprentice in their own lives is as well.

It’s ALL in a day’s work. 

A Note to My Children, Aged 43 and 5/12

Disregard my previous missive.

While that advice may have been sound – in a low-level survivalist sort of way – it was ordered toward others rather than centered on you.

Yes, it suggested simple ways to keep the lid on things at home with small children – and you would be the one responsible for completing them – but that’s the only part of YOU that factored into that equation.

It put you at the center of others’ judgment of you – via your home and your housekeeping skills.

Rather than giving you the legacy of neurosis founded on society’s standards of good parenting and homemaking, I challenge you to give yourself the gift of not caring what unexpected guests think of your house; of not deriving your own worth based on how the physical place you share with a slew of other people with their own free wills and sets of hands and collections of things looks.

And if you want to stay in your pajamas all day, please do so without explaining yourself to anyone. You work damn hard and deserve a comfy pair of pants when you want them.

Mother as Refugee, Part II

Stemming from the author’s note I addended to my last piece, I have some more thoughts to share on the idea of mother as refugee.  I alluded to the fact that my musings obviously came from a very ‘first world problem’ place.  Even had I not used that actual phrase, there were many details in my post that gave me away.

Assumption: access to child care

To escape, i.e. leave one’s home, someone else has to watch the kids.  While many mothers may dream of it, the point is moot if there is no one to care for the children in their absence.

Assumption: a partner in child-rearing

Raising one’s children with a support partner – both emotionally and logistically – frees one to care for oneself, offers the space to do so, validates the importance of . . . an act which is exponentially harder without one.

Assumption: financial solvency

My piece presupposes that there is extra room in one’s budget for such frivolity as a fancy coffee drink.  Buying a coffee I could’ve made at home is a luxury I need to plan for in my first world budget.  It’s also a way to secure space in the establishment.  For mothers with low incomes, buying a drink in exchange for a seat isn’t even an option.  This also assumes that one doesn’t first have to pay for child care in order to get some time to oneself, in which case even an overpriced cup of coffee is a drop in the bucket.

Assumption: local resources/community

A latte at a coffee house as self-care is the ultimate example of white mom privilege.  Coffee shops – one really – are also the only places in my mostly rural town that are open in the evenings.  If the library happens to be open when I get the chance to escape, there isn’t a quiet section for me to hide.  I’ve resorted to sitting in my car in some picturesque spot, but that only works during daylight hours in warm weather.  Winter in the Northeast is not conducive to this.  In other words, place plays a large role in the opportunities available to mothers.  If there is no building, no business with availability that suits her schedule and economic needs, there is no escape.   

Assumption: home as a safe and comforting place

Perhaps home as it exists is a very triggering place.  Some mothers may associate their surroundings with abusive episodes or people who live(d) there.  The emotions elicited may be polar opposite to the relaxation response.  Others may be overwhelmed by the sight of dishes to wash or piles of laundry to process, a very real and overwhelming reminder of her daily duties.  Or perhaps others expect her to perform such duties when at home or consider her time squandered.

I cannot assume that I’ve done any justice to the situations I’ve described above.  I cannot presume what it is like to actually live in such conditions.  I only open them in an attempt to unpack some of my own privilege and honor the experience of every mother.

 

Mother as Refugee

For many reasons, I needed to sit on the couch yesterday and do nothing.  After a short while, it became clear that TV time with the toddler was not going to provide my needed respite.  Even snuggled under the same blanket, I was not providing her with enough [attention/snack food/video selection].   Circle all that apply.

It was just that kind of day.

She continued to want; her sisters added to the cacophony when they got home.  The toddler was a bit extra on the toddler scale, but none of them made outrageous requests.  By the time my husband got home and I stepped into the kitchen seeking an adult conversational release valve, I was all edges.  The last of a staccato flurry of requests nearly made me run screaming from the house.

That’s when an inner alarm went off.  I need a day off.  I need time away.

But the glaring alarm bells weren’t entirely correct.

What I need is time at home, alone.

I need a day off in my house left to my own devices.  To sit on the couch for as long as I want until I want to rise and retrieve a snack.  To watch a British drama until I cry and/or decide I’ve had enough.  To read, to write, to fill some of the pages in those adult coloring books I bought for self-care following the birth of the present toddler.  To sleep.  To stare into space.

But moms are not afforded that luxury.  I am never in my house alone.

In order to get a respite, I need to leave the house.

With respites few and far between, by the time I get one or my mental health sounds the alarm, I am usually in such a state of exhaustion that the ideal break would be crawling under a blanket and ceasing to exist for a while.  Except coffee houses don’t usually have a corner in which to hole up.  Plus, they have people.  To me, people-ing does not constitute a break.  And I can’t bring my own gluten-free vegan snacks to go with the yummy latte.

I encounter this same conundrum when I slip away to write.  Even if I don’t want to crawl under a blanket, there isn’t a quiet corner to be had.  Last weekend, I thought I’d come up with the perfect plan when I dropped off my ten year-old at a two-hour birthday party.  I’d go to the big library four minutes away, spread out all my materials on a big oak table on some deserted level, and get shit done.  Except the big library is closed on Sundays.  The sweet parking spot I snagged right in front should have tipped me off before I got out of the car.

So off to a different coffee house this time for a sweet drink not good for my blood sugar or wallet.  The convivial atmosphere was not good for concentration either.  Apparently 2 PM on a Sunday is the time to get coffee in this town.

If someone could figure out a way to provide moms with a hidey-hole to escape from the circumstances that won’t let them relax at home, it would be a huge success.  And if I can figure out a way to do this, consider this my official claim to the idea.

 

But that excuses the actual problem: that mothers are not allowed to shelter-in-place. 

 

They are forced from the nests of their homes by the demands and responsibilities that weigh on them there.  Not given the chance to breathe, they must take it.  The surface tension of the home, while a thin skin, must be broken through for a gasp of air.

And while the act of taking this time is choosing oneself, showing one’s deserved value – it is undermined by the fact that mothers are ousted from their territory, their home base to get it.

promenade-solitaire--1473171360frf

Richard Revel via publicdomainpictures.net

Should not the pyramid be flipped the other way?

Mothers work hard to make the house a home.  And yet, they don’t get to enjoy the benefits of that.  The soft blanket and pillows that grace the bed.  The way the sunlight spills through the windows casting the white walls a brilliant hue.  A quiet so sound that the click of the boiler can be heard far below.

Even if a step away gives a break, a breather, it is on foreign territory.  Any comfort it gives is not of the ultimate level.  It is not complete because it isn’t home, where one can be completely and totally oneself and off-guard.  Relaxation, yes.  Complete, never.

Mothers are forced to roam, choosing the least off-putting or triggering place to settle for an attempt at realigning and regulating their overwrought senses and psyche; adding one more thing to an already overflowing list of decisions and tasks which elicit the need to escape in the first place.

I don’t know what the solution is.  I don’t know what needs to change to honor mothers and their numerous sacrifices.  All I know is I wish I could just stay home, alone.


Author’s Note: The use of refugee here is as metaphor; it is in no way attempting to compare my ‘first world’ struggles as a mother to the very real and devastating conditions that true refugees face for themselves and their children.

Much Ado About Nothing

I’ve had one full-fledged panic attack.  With all the anxiety over all these years, one full-fledged horrible panic attack.  That’s pretty amazing and pretty lucky.  The lid-about-to-boil-over effect is one of my body’s favorite go-tos.  Lately, it’s switched over to heart palpitations when my mind starts racing.  The other night as I lay in bed thinking of all I wanted to accomplish, my heart ticked up.

See, I was faced with two whole days by myself.

Well, sort of.  The kids, on school vacation, were leaving partway through Wednesday and returning partway through Friday for a sleepover at their grandparents’.  My husband was working, but we’d have the evenings together.

But as I lay in bed the night before this whole evolution started, I felt incredibly disjointed.  I’d be waking with the kids the next day and making sure they had all the underwear and rain jackets and stuffed animals they’d need for Grammie’s.  Starting the day as mom, and then transitioning to . . . what?  A quasi-homemaker washing the laundry of my own that I haven’t had a chance to wash, but would like to wear since I’ll be my own person for a day or so?  Run the errands I didn’t get to yesterday because I can do them in half the time kid-free.  Or switch straight to sloth because I can sit on the couch and watch a movie uninterrupted in the middle of the day?  The pull of doing all the things – and needing to do some of the things – versus the things I wanted to do for my soul’s survival were ramping me up.  Or, more accurately, the fact that I was going to run out of time before I ran out of things to do – and my people came home.

When my baby – at the time – started kindergarten, I found myself floundering as I tried to fit indulgent baths and writing time and house projects in the six hours of each school day.  I actually restarted therapy because I was so lost.  After years of never being alone, I thought I couldn’t wait until I finally was.  And I was right.  But, as any mom of a certain number of years will tell you, whether you mean to or not, so much of yourself becomes the mom-self that when there suddenly is a void – be it from kindergarten or college – you unexpectedly find yourself flailing.  So the switch of me-time flipped from famine to feast – and it still wasn’t enough.  I found myself dreading the return-time of the bus – because I hadn’t done enough, been alone long enough.  And I hadn’t even decided what I was going to do for work now that all my kiddos were in school.  My therapist told me I wasn’t ready to go to work; that I needed to unwind a bit more before I contemplated what was next.

And then I got pregnant.  [Insert bitter ironic laugh here]

Next month that baby will be three.  We’re contemplating sending her to preschool next year so I find myself facing the same quandries of what to do with my ‘free’ time as I did three and a half years ago.  But I’m starting a little early this time.  My eldest is old enough and owns a phone now so for a few hours a week I put her in charge of her sisters and sneak away to write, think.  I can already feel that I have much work to do on myself to prep for the actual work.  Plus, even on those days it’s me and the baby while the others are at school, I still dread the return of the bus.

These two days are a microcosm of that feeling; what elicited that heart-pounding panic in the dim of my room the other night.  I’m not back to square one.  I’m working on such a backlog, such a deficit of self-care in the simplest sense of the word – like silence to think – that the return of my people, the resumption of the needs, demands, to-dos, freaks me the %*$# out.  Not because I don’t love them.  Not because I hate my life.  Not because I could/should keep them away so I can do all my things.  It’s unrealistic for me to think I could possibly catch up on all I’ve been wanting to do in one day to myself.  But I think my ‘fight or flight’ is afraid I’ll never get any time to myself again.

So I lie in bed and run through every possible permutation of what I could do with my time, petrified that I won’t get it right and regret squandering my precious time to myself.

Obsessive, anxiety-inducing behavior.  Not totally rational, though rationalizing every move, of course.

But this day and a half have produced some wins.

I got a haircut.  I hand-washed those long-since buried bits of clothing.  I scheduled two posts.  I drank a latte and ate a muffin bigger than my head.  I drank wine with my husband, enjoyed a new recipe with him without the kids turning their noses up, and watched a movie without turning the volume down.  I reveled in lyrical literature.  And stared into space a bit while my mind wandered.

There’s always the panic – or possibility of.  There’s always something that could be done.  There’s always doubt.  But there are the good things, too.  Here’s to looking in the middle distance enough – neither too closely nor unseeingly – to recognize them.

On the Treadmill

No, this is not an account of my latest exercise endeavors.  The only personal story I have about treadmills is my daughter’s run-in with one that ended in road-rash (see what I did there?).  That still makes me giggle.  Don’t judge.  It was her own fault.  I’m pretty much in love with OK Go’s endeavors on treadmills, too.

But me, no.

Which is ironic because I’m on one every damn minute of every damn day – the metaphoric treadmill of motherhood.

Maybe it’s unfair to blame all of my mania on motherhood.  There probably is some part of my personality that would still schedule me to my utmost limit – but it’s hard to imagine what life would be like if I ‘only’ had to work without the constraints and constancy of mothering.  And even pre-kid working me would binge watch Trading Spaces in a blob on the couch after a particularly hectic day of work.

Now, when I get the chance to step off the treadmill, I’m like that blob – but without the decision-making capabilities of any grey matter.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the grey matter used for ‘personal’ decision-making is so underused it has atrophied.

When we get off the treadmill so infrequently, our bodies and minds know not what to do without the cycle and incessant motion.  Being at rest is so foreign, that part of ourselves we’ve shoved down for so long is like a salamander with a light shone on it.

That part that cultivates hobbies, interests, passions; rest, rejuvenation, relaxation.  That little corner inside ourselves closest to our souls.  The part that should be getting more play, not the least amount possible.  Not so little that when it can come out to play, we don’t know what to do with ourselves.

By some stroke of luck and generosity, I find myself alone and stuffing my face with donuts.  I’m also sipping on a caramel-sea salt-molasses-coffee concoction.  The caffeine and sugar combination is already thumping in my veins and lining my blood sugar up on the cliff.  BUT what else does one do when you can stuff your face with forbidden foods without little people’s pleading eyes killing your buzz?  Yoga without a little person sitting on your head or smashing into your pelvis while you try to relax into savasana?  A warm bath with the aromatic soaks your friend handcrafted!?  Scrap some of the eight-thousand photos that would bring you into the last decade?  Write that folktale you’ve been ruminating on?  Or the several posts you’ve been marinating?  Or actually get down ideas for the next big jump in your life?

Or you could stand in the middle of your living room floor, holding onto your phone with your atrophied little T-Rex arms and scroll Facebook on your browser – not the app because you took it off your phone for Lent so you wouldn’t go on FB so much – and not sitting down because that would mean it’s not just a temporary distraction to which you’re not totally committed.  You could stand there and fill the void with more vacuous activity instead of plucking one valuable thing out of the myriad you haven’t had a chance for in so long.  You can give in to the confounding paralysis that comes from wishing desperately for more time and then desperately wanting to do all that you’ve missed out on once you get a bit – that you do nothing.  You could also invite your anxiety in so that even watching Trading Spaces or whatever binge-worthy show has replaced it is ruined because you can’t let go of the things you’re not doing.

The answer, I suppose, is to get more free time; take more free time.  Part of that is impossible because – treadmill.  Part of that is more difficult because of my ‘prepping for a sub is more work than a day of teaching’ theory.  And a huge – perhaps the most insurmountable – part of it is breaking ourselves of the mental and emotional habits that have led to this.  Yes, we can be angry at the treadmill, curse the unseen figures that keep turning it on and programming it to higher, faster levels, but we need to learn how to unplug it, unplug ourselves.  So that even when we get some time, we don’t spend the whole time trying to unwind.

Now I face the insurmountable task of unwinding with a gob of caffeine floating throughout my system.  I’ll let you know how savasana goes.  Or maybe I’ll have an energized bout of writing.  I don’t know, I haven’t decided yet.

Sub Plans, Swedish Design, and S#!*

Anyone who has ever been a teacher knows that taking a day off is almost not worth it.  Preparing the lessons and materials to ensure for an actual day of education in your absence – instead of slapping a DVD in the player – is often more work than if you were teaching the class yourself.

Yet again, another lesson that transfers to motherhood.

Craving adult time and a long-overdue visit to IKEA, I jumped on the opportunity for both when a friend told me she had the day off yesterday.  The plan was to head to her house directly after the last school-bound child was on the bus.  Barring the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the non-school-bound one because I wouldn’t let her out of her car seat at the bus stop, we were good to go.  She even stayed in her stroller through the entire showroom, only asking to play once we reached the toy section.  The carrot of mac and cheese dangling in front of her face delayed that meltdown.

Things got slightly hairy when I took her into the family bathroom.  While it was a wide-open space with a changing station and comfy chair for nursing, there was a separate stall with the toilet.  So I didn’t lock the outer door.  First mistake.  Another mom did come in to change her baby so I herded my toddler into the stall with me.  Apparently, the last inch or two she’s gained recently are the magic amount to bring her just within reach of most anything I don’t want her to touch.  My cheeks barely hit the seat before she’d unlocked the door.  She headed straight to our stroller which was right outside the stall so I finished my business while also trying to twist my upper half in such a way to watch for the two little snow boots she’d insisted on wearing this sunny day.  I found her just about to slip out the outer door when I’d pulled up my pants and exited the stall.  I mumbled to the other mom, looking over her shoulder from her cooing infant on the changing table, how awesome it was that she can reach doorknobs now.  ‘Love when they reach that age,’ she said; she’d sent her toddler out with auntie.

After lunch, my friend wrangled my toddler into a shopping cart as only a loving friend who is not said child’s mother can.  Feeling like I’d sicced my child onto her, I offered her the empty stroller to push.  I’m glad she declined because the ensuing conversations between the two were gold: toddler logic and made-up language with a sense of humor.  Plus, my toddler was much more enamored by a different face in front of her, keeping her in the carriage.  We made it through the marketplace without incident, even through an email-accessing exchange at the register (apparently, you do need the physical card for your IKEA family account).

It was only when we went back into the bathroom that things got hairy again.  This family bathroom had no stall and a better lock so I thought we were good.  Next mistake.  Right to the door, her little fingers expertly twisted the dead-bolt style lock – and swung the door wide to the lobby – as I sat on the toilet.  Mid-business, I launched from the toilet in a modified crouch-walk, trying to scoop her up with one arm and slam the door shut as quickly as possible.  My friend lifted her eyes from her phone in surprise.  Child escapism, public nudity – I was trying to address both at once.  Unsuccessfully.  I ended up slamming the little fingers of one of her hands in the door.  She buried her sobs in my shoulder while I finished some one-handed toileting, then ran her fingers under the cold, cold water of the sink.

Apart from almost driving out of the garage with the trunk open, we headed home without any other disasters.  Then my phone chirped.  My older two, who were walking home from the bus stop and then retrieving their sister off the elementary bus a little later, were holed up in a neighbor’s house because a freaky man on a bike had gone past them on the street.  They video-chatted me once they ventured home, refusing to go out again for their younger sister.  I finally convinced them to get her – stating safety in numbers, other parents at bus stop – but arrived home to angry children who felt I hadn’t validated their concerns.

They came at me as soon as I unlocked the door.  We said a few words.  I liberated their baby sister from the car.  We said a few more.  I grabbed the water bottles and travel mugs from the car.  I apologized and reassured them.  I made two more trips with my actual purchases.  I barely had my coat off when my husband, who had arrived home in the midst of all this, called from the upstairs bathroom, “Why is there feces in the sink?”

After an entire evolution that included drain disassembly, toothbrushes, and disinfecting products, I was finally able to show off my IKEA haul, which seemed incredibly underwhelming at this point.  This was an awful lot of work for some Swedish design therapy.  Maybe my expectations were too high for a marathon shopping trip with a toddler.  More likely, I waited far too long for a ‘day off’ and got a little more frantic with each little incident.

My kids were safe, only two of my toddler’s fingers were slightly bruised, my friend assured me my little escapee had blocked the lobby’s view of me from the waist down (she was the perfect height for that), and she and I had a lot of laughs.  At the end of day, all was good.  Still, I wonder whether it would’ve been a whole lot easier if I invited her over for coffee and we slapped a DVD in the player.

20181129_1029511109770207304044748.jpg

At least I’m not the poor soul who left this on the ground of the IKEA garage.  I can’t imagine the familial discord this caused when they got home and got to assembling. (Jennifer Butler Basile)

The Mother of All Potatoes

I woke up Mother’s Day morning to an empty house.

I’d sent my kids away.  I’d made myself childless on the day meant to celebrate my being their mother (setting aside the original intent of Mother’s Day, of course).

I didn’t realize until it was too late that I’d robbed myself of the dry toast and tepid tea in bed.  I worried that I’d ruined my mother-in-law’s morning by inserting four raucous children.  I thought I’d gained a morning of sleeping in after a fun night out with friends – which was my top priority when babysitting became a possible overnight – but my eyes popped open inexplicably at 6:30 and I was up.

My husband and I had time to uninterruptedly discuss irritating things we’d been avoiding and got agitated. I worked uninterruptedly in the kitchen for almost five hours prepping the brunch to which I’d invited both our mothers, the muscles in my legs that didn’t get enough sleep twitching at me to sit down.

Still, I thought to myself, look at all you’re accomplishing without the children in the house.  This is taking a while without them here; imagine how much it would take with interruptions.  It actually boggled my mind that what I’d thought was a modest menu was taking so long to prep.  Another recent window into what realistic expectations actually are.  But I was doing it.  I wasn’t losing my mind.

And then, as I entered the final stretch, my husband asked about the potatoes.  The potatoes that needed to be scrubbed and chopped and roasted for a decent amount of time on which we were starting to run low.

20180513_1137351772647390.jpg

Jennifer Butler Basile

As I cleaved into the dense sweet potatoes, feeling the solid thunk of the blade on the board below, the irony did not escape me.  My quintessential metaphor for the struggle of motherhood, right there in front of me on Mother’s Day.  Why the hell was I chopping potatoes on the day already fraught with unrealistic and unfulfilled expectations, sorrow and disappointment, fete tinged with personal feelings of failure?  I just wanted a nice brunch for everyone and be done with it.  Not think – of the magnitude of motherhood and its struggle.

I didn’t let my husband prep the potatoes like I should have – from either a need to control the size of the dice or to see things through whole since I’d prepped every other dish.  But he’d taken over scrubbing the dishes for me – seeing firsthand what a PIA the caked-on pizza crust from two nights earlier was.

I didn’t go all out escapist as I cubed the potatoes as I may have one day.  But I acknowledged that I was stressed by a full morning without kids.  Which meant that I wasn’t just horrible at handling them and life; I needed to start expecting both less and more of myself.

The visceral memory of chopping potatoes may never go away, but this time it was a gentler reminder of checking my tension, setting (actually) realistic goals, asking for help; of actually voicing my needs and accepting the resultant offers of help.

We need to be as gentle with ourselves as we strive to be as mothers.

The Push and Pull of Motherhood

It all starts with a push.  It is through a woman’s labor, a forceful push, that a baby – and her mother – is birthed.

From that point on, it is all about pulling.  A woman, now a mother, pulled in eight thousand different directions a day.  Literally, she is – calls for food, cries for comfort – but that’s not even of what I speak.  I’m speaking of expectation vs. reality; perfection vs. attainability; manic striving vs. sanity.

download

From that first push, and from that first pull forward, the unwitting conditioning of our ideas and carrying out of motherhood shape our every decision, every day, our very psyches.

The other day, I kicked my kids out of the kitchen while I made the cupcakes they requested for Easter.  My second oldest had requested red velvet, which we’d never made before.  Why, suddenly, did she want this new and different flavor?  Could we not keep it simple, especially surrounding a busy holiday?  But then, I could’ve kept it simple by redirecting her to a different flavor or even buying a ready-made mix.  Instead, I half-kiddingly offered the metaphor of red for Christ’s blood.  She was sold.  And I began research on homemade recipes with less artificial ingredients than the mixes.  Again, could’ve kept this simple, but looked for the simplest one I could find that was sort of in line with the husband’s and my new trying-to-be-healthy-ish regimen.

 

That morning, the second oldest and I participated in an impromptu Girl Scout cookie booth.  I came home to prep appetizers for a dinner party at a friends’ that night.  Then I set in on the cupcakes.  The cupcake-requester was nowhere to be found, most likely buried eyeball-deep in her iPad after a morning of social interaction.  Her next youngest sister saw me gathering supplies and asked to help.  At this point, I was up to my eyeballs in a messy kitchen and bad humor.

“NO,” I replied far too emphatically.

When I saw her sad little face, I almost reconsidered, but held my ground, knowing that with limited time and remaining fuse I’d do far more damage than that to her poor little soul.

By way of a conciliatory carrot, I said, “You can help decorate them when they’ve cooled.”

As I prepped the rest of the recipe, I felt guilty.  These were cupcakes for a family celebration of Easter, requested by the kids most excited about the holiday.  Yet, the kid who’d started this whole evolution was MIA and I’d sequestered the rest.  Was I not sucking the joy out of this?  Was it about having a finished batch of red velvet cupcakes or letting my daughters participate in a fun activity?

When describing the frenetic events of the weekend to my therapist today, but before I got the part about my guilt, she congratulated me for sensing my limit and taking steps to keep from flying right over it.  When I told her how I perceived it, she said that I had been well within my rights for self-preservation by prepping the cupcakes myself.  She pointed out that I welcomed them in decorating the cupcakes, which is all kids really want to do anyway.

It did occur to me that, had I removed that fail-safe for myself that day, it wouldn’t have been a June Cleaver moment even if mother and child had made cupcakes together.  It almost certainly would’ve ended badly.  Just the night before, I’d dropped the f-bomb as we all made Resurrection cookies together.  Jesus would’ve been proud.

Looking back, I can see how it would’ve ended.  I would’ve needed multiple ‘come to Jesus’ moments afterwards to recoup.  And yet, the guilt still came in the moment.

And that is the pull modern mothers have.  We have been conditioned to do all manner of June Cleaver, Martha Stewart, Mother Earth type of things for our children, our families – even to the exclusion of our sanity.

Motherhood, parenthood, by its very essence, is sacrifice.  But there is no sense giving all of ourselves if everyone involved is miserable.  Even cupcakes are bitter to the taste buds when made with resentment and frustration.

The journey of motherhood started with a push.  That doesn’t mean we have to be pulled apart from that point forward.  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  And no, I’m not saying we should push our kids around.  We mustn’t remain static in the face of our conditioning.   There has to be movement both towards our children and our own self care.

After all, my homemade version of red velvet cupcakes were vegan – with store bought cream cheese frosting.

%d bloggers like this: