My son told me, a few weeks ago, to wear my hair down and when I tried to put it up, he said, “No, Mommy, I like it down!”
I was touched, at first: he sees me! My son is taking me in, memorizing what I look like, he really knows me! So I didn’t put my hair up. I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but I just laughed and said, “OK, sure,” and even though my neck was hot, I put the elastic back on my wrist and did what my two-year old asked. I kept my hair down.
Then it happened again and then, again, at home and at the playground and when I picked him up from school. And the whole thing hit me in the face, the same way my own stupid horse mane did whenever the wind blew: THIS is the patriarchy. I am witnessing it, I am HARNESSING it, every time I let this little boy tell me what I can and cannot do with my hair. And this is the moment, right now, when I begin raising a feminist outright. I don’t have to just set an example, I can teach an actual lesson. I can remind this self-important bully, MY TODDLER, what is outside his jurisdiction.
Look, I get it, I know my son was probably just looking for the comfort of the familiar. He wanted my hair down not because he thinks I don’t deserve to wear it up but because I wear it down a lot and he likes what he knows. When my husband shaves his stubble, it takes me twenty minutes to remind myself he is still the same person.
Couldn’t this be the moment where it all starts? The trouble? Couldn’t this be the reason a boy gets the idea that he can tell someone what to do or, more specifically, what to look like? And if that someone is his mother and she says, OK, and she is the first woman he knows and loves, couldn’t that inform his entire understanding of what he can ask for and get when it comes to women?
I think I was a feminist girl (as all girls are, aren’t they?) before I knew what the word meant, but then, around age eleven, after I got my period at the state fair, grew out my radically short haircut, and started looking at myself through the eyes of everybody else, I lost my nerve. Since then, I’ve been alternately self-possessed and deeply insecure. Like all humans, I guess? I know I can’t undo that or fix whatever internal and societal disdain sent me on that obsessively self-aware course.
Or can I?
I at least owe my son’s generation a man who doesn’t hate women. And I am pretty sure that starts with me loving him and at the same time telling him I can do whatever the fuck I want with my hair.
“Sorry,” I said curtly, sitting on the bathtub while he peed in a tiny toilet. “But I like it up.”
“I like it down!” he yelled.
“Well, I like it up,” I yelled back, twisting my hair away from him.
He stood up, circling me. He grabbed at my ponytail with his tiny fingers. “No!”
“Yes!” I said.
It became a game.
Before I could explain to him that women can do what THEY WANT and he did not have a right to tell them what to do and he could wear HIS HAIR HOWEVER HE WANTED I DON’T CARE JUST STAY OUT OF MINE, he stopped being mad. I did too. It was lovely and then he screamed and koala’d me when I tried to give him a bath.
The next time, I said something like, “I decide how I do my hair, not you!” And he said, “No, I do!” and I said, “No, I do!” and he smiled with all his teeth. (My repetition bit kills with only one person on earth and that is him.)
Yes, this is all standard issue toddler business, being finicky and demanding about inconsequential things. And sure, if I had a daughter, maybe she’d be saying the same stuff, barking at me to KEEP IT WAVY, DON’T STRAIGHTEN IT, MOMMY!
But that would be different. Or at least, I would feel differently about it. I am certain of that. I am certain that I would hear my daughter tell me what’s up with my hair and I’d think, that’s right, speak up, say what you want, demand it, tell me what to do!
Men have not been told for centuries how to look, dress, live, think, feel, love, bear children, birth children, get angry, die. But women have. I am certain – as certain as someone who does not actually have a daughter can be – that I would not want to encumber mine any more than history has already done, forever and ever.
My son, however – all our privileged sons really – could use some encumbering. So in my very miniscule effort to realign civilization against oppression and inequality, I will tell my son that, on this issue, he does not deserve to speak up. On the issue of my hair, he can be quiet. On the issue of my body, any woman’s body, he can keep his opinions to himself, thanks, because we DO NOT NEED THEM. And I hope, I really, really hope, that every time I remind him of this, kindly but firmly, warmly but assuredly, maybe I am, in some slow but affecting way, chiseling into being the kind of man who is afraid to mess with a woman’s body, the kind of man who respects that body, the kind of man who knows how to fight, the way his mother fought with him about her hair, but who chooses to fight for gentleness, for women and men who are silenced by force, by rape, by assault weapons, by bigotry. This might be totally deluded and romantic. But for better or worse, I am deluded and romantic.
There are bigger battles than my hair and I know that and I hope he fights them all. I ought to start fighting more myself.
I have, for
about ten years now, coveted work in areas where rejection is assumed. I’m an
actor and a writer and a total fucking idiot. If you make things whose value
can be debated or annihilated or worshiped on the Internet and whose necessity
is also not obvious to certain members of the population, you probably
experience the same. And you’re also a fucking idiot. You’re my kind of fucking
idiot. We idiots are propelled by the gamble, the likelihood of no,
but the chance, however infinitesimal, of yes.
spiritually exhausting and also exactly what living with a two-year old is
like. My son is two and doing exactly what two-year olds are apparently
supposed to: saying no. He, like the looming gatekeepers I encounter out in the
grown world every day, says no to every previously unquestioned directive,
suggestion, modest request, EVERY. THING. And he does it with panache. He’s not
just saying no; he’s shouting “I DON’T LIKE THAT!” in response to all pants and
baths. He’s laying out his logic: “I DON’T WANT THAT BECAUSE…[MUMBLED MADE-UP
WORDS THAT OFTEN SOUND LIKE A LONG, LONG
BEAR]”. He’s slick, too. “Let’s sit down for dinner,” I say,
matter of factly, because that’s how the books say you’re supposed to do it.
“No thank you, Mommy,” he replies, demure as he shoves stacks of novels off a
bookshelf. “Oh! That’s so nice, Sly,” I say, disarmed, and then he yells, “You
act nicely!” and I realize it is all a metaphor. He tosses those novels on the
floor the same way the gatekeepers of my grown-up world toss the things I make
on the floor and not because they are monsters. Like my two-year old, for them,
yes does not come easily, nor should
it. But, unlike for my kid, it’s not in the name of their development; it’s in the name of mine.
I know my two-year old is mucking around in a swamp of good developmental shit, from which he shall emerge…stronger? Wiser? Older? Whatever, I know it’s as it should be. And I know all my professional failures are “opportunities for growth” (VOMIT) too, whittling my character and the character of whatever it is I’m working on. Ugh. I KNOW. But good god, it is a fucking slog, a massacre of my tremulous confidence.
As a woman, my first instinct is not to persuade someone to do something they do not want to do. No means no. Move on. Do something else. DON’T PUSH!
I’m talking about not walking naked to the playground; about having a carrot instead of a cupcake the size of my head; about not leaping off the back of the ten-foot tall slide. And I’m talking about making my living, not just some bullshit creative exercise. These are the battles worth fighting, the nos that are worth questioning.
I wonder if Sly feels this way. I wonder if, when he tried for twenty minutes, to vault up onto the kitchen counter to get to the soft cookies, sobbing and screaming, he was also spiritually exhausted. I wonder if he thought, there has to be a better way! Or, she has to see how much I need this! She has to understand I deserve this!
God, I act like he’s the only one saying no, but I’m saying it too. And yes, sure, I know what’s best and I know that cookies are not the answer (most of the time). Oh, but if he only knew how badly I want to be that cookie, to be the thing the bastions of art were trying to scale impossibly tall countertops for.
How do you make yourself impossible
to refuse? How do you fight these battles without actually fighting?
Probably the answer is to keep trying and to listen sometimes; to accept that pants cannot be avoided, but to demand that carrots be accompanied by cookies. Because of course they should.
It sucks when your kid and your job are saying the same annoying thing to you. But maybe everything is a phase, for everybody, not just toddlers. And I can either carry this struggle the way a parent carries a balloon, like it’s a burden. Or I can carry it the way my son does: like it’s a dream. He doesn’t hold on to it too tight, either, delighted when it bops into view, and amazed when, inevitably, it flies away.
I am behind this man as we approach the escalator and I am hoping he is a walker, the kind that sees moving stairways not as boons to leisure but as assistance in the unending race to arrive. Turns out he is the latter. Saints be praised! Now I have one less reason to slow down. Behind me, a woman is right up on my heels. We are nearly jogging, us three strangers, and there are more of us in front and behind, our knees all lifting to blast past the inert on our right. This is New York. I’m not sure if it’s New York distilled to its essence, but it is unmistakably New York.
Here, in this unmistakable city, you can live in an 800 square foot apartment with a child, two children (MORE THAN TWO CHILDREN?), and you can be fine and happy and without any more want than anybody else because, as we all know, our rents and mortgages pay for the square footage not of our units but of this adrenal snarl of a city we’ve agreed is worth sharing with those in similar units under and atop us, stacked up efficiently for a relatively small number of miles (72.8, if you live in my borough). I agree to this, every time I re-sign my Brooklyn lease, which I’ve done for almost ten years.
You can spend an entire day or a week or a month in Brooklyn, walking places, riding the buses, trying to ride the G train, and you can never go into Manhattan and be no worse off, maybe be better off. I have been trying to extract my fingers from the sweaty grasping hand on the other side of the water for a little while now, but it is tricky. It calls out with work, or the promise of work, with buzzing nights, shows and dinners, and cavernous buildings filled with bears and bones through which my son runs wild-eyed and shouting. It is both why we stay here in Brooklyn, a slow-running R ride away, and why we wonder if we should just abandon ship, since we don’t go out the way we used to, thanks to the kid and some dormant domesticity he has unearthed in us.
Is it people telling us we will want more space that makes me think I need more space or is that we have only one window in the living room and I want to see more outside from inside? That is sort of a distillation of what suburban life can be, isn’t it? It is, for a price that is not bad, having a good view of the outside world from inside. You don’t have to leave your house as much, everything you need is there and in your lovely backyard, in your driveway, your garage. Home is not only your refuge, it is your Brooklyn; it is the place you can spend long stretches of time, happy, warm, spreading your arms out and spinning in circles and not bumping into anything.
I’ve been thinking about all this as I read about Syrian refugees. How absurdly easy it is for us to decide to displace ourselves, to choose our home from all the places that will be happy to have us (and our down payment). We are so lucky. Right now, we are, my husband and son and I, New Yorkers, not because we deserve to be but because we were lucky enough to get to decide to come here. Or, in my case, come back here.
My great-grandparents got of out Poland in 1920. Poor and Jewish, unwanted there and here, they came anyway and they rented apartments in Brownsville. Their daughter, my grandmother, bought a house in East Flatbush with my grandfather. Twenty-something years later, my dad left for college and for space, in every sense of the word, and he didn’t go back until we told him there was going to be a grandchild. Now he and my mom rent an apartment in Downtown Brooklyn a few blocks from where my grandma worked for the Board of Education until she was 70.
A vein of my mom’s family has been in
America since the 17th century. She’s a descendant of Anne
Hutchinson (whose Wikipedia entry is BANANAS), the
midwife and anti-establishment spiritual leader who was made a refugee by her
Puritan community in Massachusetts when they banished her for being a smart,
loud-mouthed preacher. She went to what is now the Bronx
(42 square miles) and that is where she died, killed by a group of Siwanoy in
retaliation for the massacres of a whole bunch of other Native American tribes,
massacres that had been ordered by dude the Dutch West India
company put in charge of New York.
Am I New Yorker? Am I an American? These, in my opinion, are irrelevant questions and, in any case, the answer is as much yes as it is no. But if you want to say I’m a New Yorker, and sometimes I do very much want to say this, than anybody can be a New Yorker, anybody who wants to slog it out here, where we glance dismissively at the slow moving cretins beside us and then hurry on to wherever it is we think we’re going. Come here, live here, try to get out of here, this is a city that is not without a history of cruelty to the displaced, but certainly a city with a history of folding in its displaced, so much so, we’ve forgotten that way back when, we were not welcome here either. I hope many more refugees come here, from Syria, from Turkey, from Pakistan, and may they hurry along ahead of me or glare at me as I scurry beside them or pay me no mind at all.
I saw a lone kid dancing on the Q train. He was swinging from the bars with the
ease of a slack bit of rope as we huffed over the bridge. The sun was making
its early December exit. There was music playing. The kid was so young, barely
a teenager. Do you remember when you swung on the subway bars? You know what I
mean. When you swung on any kind of bars? I don’t. I never did the monkey bars.
I was too scared. You can step halfway inside people’s lives here in the span
of a minute, even less. It’s all borrowed, the land, the views, the trains, the
subway bars for swinging. It wasn’t like I could imagine exactly what it felt
like for my body to rise up and over and down the double bars splitting one set
of seats from the other. But maybe I could. Maybe I did. Maybe that’s why I don’t want to leave New York, not yet.
shouldn’t have surprised me that I wouldn’t be very good at making mom friends.
I am not particularly good at making friends in general. This is not something I
would’ve said aloud before I had my kid because I’d have been embarrassed. I’m
embarrassed now, but I’m too tired to dwell on it. (This seems to be a large
part of becoming a parent, that you experience the world just as you did
before, your anxieties and fears remain, multiply even, but there is less time
or energy for decorum. So out they billow, like the tail of that mistake of a
shirt you bought last fall when you thought hiding your ass under a long
flapping piece of fabric would be distracting in the right way.)
since puberty, when I lost both the ability to speak at a healthy volume and
the chutzpah to tell other people what to do, my friends have found me, not I
them. This has been a gift – I’ve teetered like a dope on the top of the
seesaw, grounded by women far bolder, louder, and more assured than I.
even if gifts are afforded to me still, in the form of moms I’m lucky to know and to have been found by, I’m hung up these days on the underlying deficiency, the
social paralysis, the unknown thing that keeps me from reaching out, compels me
to say nothing instead of saying all the wrong things.
Every day, I see the other moms at the playground who know each other; I see pictures of gatherings of friends with kids on Instagram and Facebook; and though I have a foot in a couple different lovely mom’s groups, on the rare times when I meet up with them, everybody seems to have a shorthand with another, a lot of things to catch up on, which they do while their children grab each other’s hands and say each other’s names and play in ways that demand a photo be taken. As this is all happening, I watch my child look up from whatever he’s playing with by himself and clock all the connections happening around us. We clock it together. He is too young, I tell myself, to glance over and wither me with his disappointment. But I say it to myself, as though he’s talking to me. You did this, Mom! You haven’t become good friends with these moms AND NOW I’m not good friends with their kids! Look what you’re doing to me, you silent island of a human! They don’t even know my NAME.
If only I could meet a mom and say, “Hey, listen, can you read a couple of my blog entries so you can better understand me and all the feelings I won’t be able to express to you? I have trouble getting real in person and I can already tell you are finding my inadvertent quiet, mannered coldness to be off-putting. I’m really not this nervous or shy! Well, I am, but not after we’ve been friends for six months to a year. By then, I’ll be at least 30% more enjoyable and relaxed! And in two years? I mean, in two years, I might have the guts to do an awkward dance in public upon running into you. I probably won’t do that (I definitely won’t), but I’ll think about it a lot during my approach. I’ll really think about it. That’s something to look forward to, right? Please don’t go! I’m a good listener and I will really think about the things you say to me and if you’re patient, my responses might even be of some interest to you!”
This is not a feasible approach. It is, in fact, a potentially self-destructive approach and one I wouldn’t recommend to anyone (although if it worked, I wouldn’t look back, I’d just fucking go with it).
The thing about all this that makes me lose my breath is that even though sometimes I feel existentially alone, I actually do have friends, friends I’ve known over twenty years and friends I’ve known for less than twelve months, but my son does not yet. Even if I feel like an outsider in the company of others at some moment, every day, I have actual friends who exist, who I can meet for dinner, who I can text or call, whose existence I can, at the very least, remind myself of when my brain is flooded at night with all of that day’s awkward attempts at relating to other humans who have children in their care.
My son might not need friends yet. But he will soon. And I fear that I have passed down to him, either by circumstance or by nature, a future of social ineptitude. I fear that he will, like me, always feel like an outsider, always be hesitant meeting people, smiling hopefully, longingly, along some endless perimeter.
I fear this while knowing that in so many ways, he is not an outsider, he is, as I’ve written here, privileged in ways that make any complaint about some sort of struggle feel petty, even disrespectful.
I don’t want to disrespect struggles far more wearying than mine.
I also don’t want to pretend that I do not wonder, every day, what it is like to have
social confidence to spare. Of course I know that many – if not most –
confident people aren’t necessarily filled to the gills with certainty; it’s
just that their default settings are different from mine. When in doubt, they
thunder or squeal or assert. When in doubt, I watch or squeak or shrug. All this
written, I can remember recent times I’ve betrayed what I’ve said here, times
I’ve surprised myself with effort, times I’ve spoken and not recognized who was
talking because it sounded all right. Very all right. If I fold myself into a
black and white corner this early in the game, I risk doing the same to my son.
I risk doing it to everybody I meet and that is no way to make a friend.
of us are so simple.
I am writing this, watching the wind pick up outside, sending the leaves that are still hanging on into a free fall to the ground. It is unsettling for a minute, like a haunting reminder of the inevitability winter. But it is also so beautiful, it happens every year. The leaves come back. Things feel terrible and strange and impossible and then, in the same moment, they don’t.
locked my car keys in my trunk two Sunday nights ago while we were visiting my
parents. It was my son’s bedtime and he was going to fall asleep in the car and
we were going to get home before our own bedtimes. Instead, we waited two hours
for the locksmith and everybody remained calm except for me. To properly
express my regret and apologize for my idiocy, my subconscious thought it best
to spend those two hours marching from the driveway to the porch to the living
room wildly and purposelessly, bursting into tears, refusing water or snacks,
and shouting things like, “I mean, I THINK they’re in the trunk! I DON’T KNOW!”
and “PEOPLE DO THIS, RIGHT?” and then repeatedly miming the trunk slam that
happened seconds before I realized what I’d done.
For your information, these exercises do nothing to better a bummer-but-not-dire situation. Because the thing is that my keys were there, right there, in the trunk and all we needed was someone to get them out. And, after an hour and a half, that someone called from his car and said he was 20-30 minutes away, according to the GPS! When I read about the refugees in Syria, their stories captured maybe most humanely and breathtakingly by Humans of New York, I see that there are no hidden keys and there is no locksmith, there is only horror and bravery and the sort of tenacity many of us will never have to locate inside ourselves.
The day after my own very minor non-crisis, I had the
thought that locking your keys inside the thing that you need the keys for is a
metaphor for the keys to your own LIFE being inside yourself. And, I thought
excitedly, you sometimes have to troubleshoot them out, the way our locksmith
did by changing course halfway through his silent effort and instead of trying
to unlock the door through the window with his bendy rod claw, he used the bendy
rod claw to pop the trunk instead! You
just have to find your locksmith was a sentence I wrote in the notes
section of my phone. It’s so cheesy, so hokey, and for that I’m sorry, but it’s
also true and lately, with my child slowly steeping in the big bad socialized
world and my own self tentatively returning to the great self-involved grown-up
world from whence I came, I am finding it to be helpful.
for example, today, when I dropped Sly off at school, two girls, both a year
older than him who were eating their breakfast in the kitchen, turned to him
and called him the name of another younger boy at school and then a different
boy and then giggled to each other. They knew his name. They were just being
clever and silly but of course I was overtaken by post-traumatic stress from
the entirety of my public school experience and I had to escort myself off the
premises before I started sob-yelling at those girls to BE FUCKING NICE,
GODDAMNIT. It washed over me then, like a case of shingles, the reason why I
was afraid of being pregnant with a girl.
if I gave birth to a mean one? Or worse, what if I gave birth to one like me?
One who had a hard time sticking up for herself, more and more as the years
went on, one whose name other kids might’ve easily pretended not to know? I’m
not saying this mired in self-hate or self-pity. I love where I’ve ended up,
I’ve had a charmed journey, and I really like myself. But dear god, being an
adolescent and teenage girl was a kind of endlessly confusing hell. And I
experienced it buoyed by every advantage. What must it have been like for girls
without the open-armed family at home and the nice house and the white skin?
husband just last night read parts of an article to me about emotional
resilience in children and I get it that we cannot and should not fight our
child’s battles and that this tiny little moment is not even any great battle
and that the world is often not nice and the sooner our kids know it, the
sooner that first early trauma is over, and the sooner other traumas can be
better weathered by these newly inured little people. I have heard all that
responsible parenting talk and I know that my son and I both have to find in
ourselves the good sense to figure shit out on our own. So I am here writing
this down and not yelling at two-year olds to call my son by his proper name
and thereby REALLY traumatizing him forever.
I was on the subway while Sly was at school earlier this week and I was wearing a dress with a flouncy skirt and checkered Vans and I did not feel like a mother. My body felt as light as it ever had. It isn’t that having a kid turns you into some kind of ogre or troll, it’s that kids are so often on you, holding your hand, in your arms, attached to your body like loving/flailing burrs. Or they’re magnetizing you from halfway down the street or from the top of the slide and no matter how laissez-faire you swear you are, you feel their falls, their almost-falls, their propulsion away from you, if they are in your sights. But he was not in my sights. Someone else was bearing the sweet weight of him.
so I was on the N train during the day, dressed for an audition, listening to
First Aid Kit, feeling young and vaguely cool. And then I saw two young actors
reading sides from a script, one in a suit and the other in tall lace up boots
and a lot of denim. I felt so endeared to them, so embarrassed for them,
cringing and proud at the same time, like half-self, half-mother, feeling for
them in all the ways somebody could, that I shrunk into myself like a paper bag
and tried not to stare. Instead, I started writing this.
can only imagine that the bristling vulnerability unlocked in me by two
PRE-pre-school girls will just keep showing itself, rising up like reflux, and
just as unwelcome and uncomfortable. I also imagine that it will get easier for
me, as it will for Sly, but that he will be toughened and I, softened, as I
relive all the uncomfortable memories of thirty years ago from above instead of
on the ground. When I watched “My So-Called Life” a few years as a
soon-to-be-mother, all I wanted was to say to Angela’s mom, Patti, “I am so
sorry I was so mad at you. You poor, caring, loving, overwhelmed human. Your
daughter is being ridiculous and you are doing the best you can.” I should say
this to my own mother. If you’re reading this, Mom (and Dad), which I know you
are, I am sorry I didn’t understand until now. It is hard to be a person and it
is hard to be a mother. But mothers have to be both.
driven only a few blocks down the dark road from my parents’ house in New
Jersey back to Brooklyn when my brother-in-law realized he’d left his apartment
keys at the house. When we pulled back in to the driveway, my mom was there,
running up to the car window, telling us to drive safely, and we were on our
There are locksmiths everywhere, I am sure of this. Sometimes, we are our own locksmiths, or sometimes they are people we love or they are strangers in t-shirts carrying bendy claw rods who appear in the night like gruff saviors or they are little kids with good senses of humor who will indirectly show my little kid that he also needs a sense of humor. Stay close by, locksmiths. I need you. Even when my keys are in my hand, I need you.
My son is at his first full day of what I am calling “school”, but what can better be described as daycare for 18-month olds and up, and I don’t know if what I have to say about what is happening right now adds up to anything definitive or helpful because I am just in it at this moment but I feel that if I don’t write down what being in it is, I will wrongly remember and gloss over things and someday tell friends who are doing similar things that it was hard but it was FINE and it is going to be GREAT. You know what, I’m not sure I’m even writing this down for my friends. I think I am writing it down because I am not sure what else to do with myself right now.
I just got a salad. I’m listening but not actually listening
to a podcast as I write this because I am frantic for chirpy, low-grade
Sly had three days of transition to
daycare/preschool last week: an hour on the first day just feeling out the
space with me there; two hours on the second day – the first hour with me and
the second, without; and two hours without me on the third day. Did you follow
all that? I have explained it several times to people, providing an excess of information
to still the seven baby birds flapping wildly in my chest when anybody wonders
how daycare is going, and I am not sure anybody really needs to know all that.
BUT I NEED TO TELL THEM.
The transition week went well! He
did not cry when I left. He was excited when I came back. I thought, it cannot
be this easy or this good. It can’t continue like this.
I WAS RIGHT! HAHA, I WAS RIGHT! SLY
IS AT HIS FIRST DAY OF PRESCHOOL/DAYCARE AS I WRITE THIS AND IT’S NOT THAT EASY, IT’S HARD, IT’S HORRIBLE,
EVERYTHING IS HORRIBLE. GODDAMNIT. I DID NOT WANT TO BE RIGHT. Sly cried when I
left and when we called ten minutes later to check in, he was not crying but he
was not going bananas with joy either.
This morning (or last night or on
Saturday or never, maybe, I don’t remember), my husband and I agreed we would see
how long Sly could go on Monday, letting the teachers tell us how he was doing
and when we should come and get him.
I just paused to take several
aggressive bites of a lentil salad with toast. I just checked my phone to see
if a rescue operation is imminent. I have no messages.
For the past ten days, Sly has half-willingly
given up nursing and his morning nap. My husband and I went to California without
him for three days for a wedding and when we got back, instead of leaping
onto my body and shouting, “Nurse! Nurse” as I assumed he would, he just
nestled his head into my neck for ten minutes, taking breaks to pull back and
look at my face and smile. It was insane. It was maybe one of the best moments
of my life so far. He didn’t ask to breastfeed for a full 24 hours after that.
I took this, and the four day tit break, as my green light to quit. He’s asked
to nurse off and on since that day, a week ago, but he doesn’t try
that hard and I’m not gonna reward half-assed efforts, for anything really, so,
it’s over. It’s over. OH MY GOD BREASTFEEDING IS OVER. If I didn’t think I’d
someday have another kid, maybe I’d be sadder. If I hadn’t already been
half-weaning him for months, maybe I’d be more hormonally rocked. But, I’m not
sad, I’m not rocked, I’m fine. I think – I hope – he is too. This single nap shit
has not been easy, but it’s been necessary because that’s what they do at
school, a single nap, starting at 1, so we have to get on the boat or flounder
forever. We are getting on the boat. We are not on it. We are getting on it.
So we’re transitioning. Some people
say you are always transitioning, with a kid, and to those people I say, OK,
fine, what am I supposed to do with that, just wear a helmet forever? Great.
We, in any case, are in the midst of several transitions and it all feels
normal for part of the day and then very bad later, especially around 5 pm or
sometimes 3 pm or sometimes 10 am.
Since consuming those lentils like
a starved goat, I have continued to behave oddly. I threw on an oversized
sweater coat, in spite of the 80-degree weather, and fast-walked myself into a
full body sweat on my way to the train. I waved at an MTA worker, not because I
thought I knew him but because he seemed kind. Like my 19-month old, I was
trying to survive by endearing myself to anybody in the near vicinity with
authority (all the while wearing what is basically a blanket).
So, my son wasn’t
bananas with joy at daycare. But, really, who goes bananas with joy that
many times a day? I don’t. I go bananas with joy a few times a week, maybe. Maybe. I understand at least some of the
psychology that surrounds a child’s adjustment to being cared for by a
non-relative three days a week. I know that they need time to learn to trust
new people and they cry to express their ache for comfort and to, in a way,
give those new people a chance to comfort them. I know that this is a process. I
hate that word and how clinical it sounds, how mathematical and soulless, but I
know that honoring the process part actually honors the non-mathematical part
of my kid, the human part of him. He is not a machine. Nor am I. Therefore, we must process. Ironic? I’m
not fully in my right mind right now.
When we called again hours later,
he was sleeping. He was sleeping! Among other sleeping children! I knew it
could happen. But I didn’t believe it would. So often in my life, I am
flabbergasted by the fact that things work out. And work out well! But what’s
the point of bracing for disaster with every big wave of change that rises
before us? My kid doesn’t need that kind of white-knuckled rigidity. I watched
Joe Biden’s interview with Stephen Colbert and if there is anything I could hope to impart to my son these days, it’s
Biden’s mother’s words: “Nobody is better than you, but you’re better than
nobody.” This isn’t so much to drum humility into my son, though that’s a
lovely (if exhausting) quality, but to do the opposite: to remind him that he
CAN – and must sometimes – manage the tricky unpleasantries of life! Like the
first nap at daycare. I have faith in him not because he’s special but because,
like so many other children before him, he can do it. He just can. I know he
can. I can too.
It isn’t helpful or fixable, this
anxiety. But maybe it’s necessary. I’m working shit out by trying to contain
those baby birds trapped in my sternum. There goes a bird, every few sentences,
another bird. Another one replaces it, but now we’re only a few hours from pick
up. The minutes move, they do, they move and move and now, here I am writing
again three days later, pretending I can jam into what’s left of the afternoon
much more than is reasonable. Here I am, birdless, all the first day twinges
gone. Here I am three days older. Here I am knowing it’s fine, everything’s
fine. Here I am knowing my son will, in time, quick-moving time, go bananas
with joy at school. And the greatest and most awful part of that is that I
won’t be there to see it.
Off you go, birds. I miss you already.
Here I am, showing up today not because I know what to say, but because I want to be here. I don’t know where else to go. I did not know what to write this week. My husband said, why don’t you write about that, about not knowing what to write about, and I thought, what a fantastic idea, I’m sure people would love to read about the blank hollows of my brain.
But here I am.
The last couple days have eked forward, punctuated by naps, trips to the ATM to pay the babysitter (so I can write), and anxiety, which has blown in like a quiet windstorm in my stomach. Have you had anxiety? YOU HAVE??? TELL ME ABOUT IT!!! IS IT LIKE MINE???
This is what I want to say to every single person I see. I want to ask them if they are having anxiety RIGHT NOW ALSO??? ARE YOU??? HOW DOES IT FEEL TO YOU???
I didn’t realize, until this heinous but otherwise banal week began, that I may actually have had anxiety my entire life. I just called it by other names (can-do spirit, wanting to be liked, nervousness around other humans, the ability to blow small things out of proportion for many days in a row). For years, I’d stayed active enough to distract the anxiety away. But I now live in kid-land. It is great here and beautiful and interesting and there are lots of small pieces of mangled food and swapped consonants, but it is also sometimes the equivalent of climbing into an umbrella stroller. I feel too big for it, sometimes. Sometimes, I can squish and it’s cool, the frame won’t break. Sometimes, though, I cannot squish and I see myself from an outsider’s perspective, too big, too full of adult thoughts and ideas to be riding around like a fool in a tiny folding chair with a basket under my butt.
Visuals like these and anxiety, they are symptoms of sleep deprivation. You cannot hide from sleep deprivation. You cannot hide from 5:30 am toddler wake-ups. You cannot hide from the bursting days, the loveliness of them and the way there are moments when you are watching your child, listening to him repeat somebody’s name, handing him a blueberry that he will pop into his mouth with the digital prowess of a teenage flautist, that the entire earth and your entire self is elsewhere and refreshingly unimportant. There are also moments when all I can think about is myself, particularly when the night has not been good to me, and that is when the anxiety barrels in, kidnapping my confidence and my righteousness and my zest for life.
It is then that I become Blank Hollow Mom. You’ve seen her before. From faraway, she seems to have a certain sense of purpose, bustling down the sidewalk, her kid wrapped close on her chest or babbling happily in a stroller out in front. But then you get closer and you see Blank Hollow Mom’s eyes, that they look empty, like she is wearing empty eye contacts, and you see her mouth and it is a straight line, maybe even a bewildered frown, maybe even an open mouth gape, like a frozen Pompeii person, and you can’t provide comfort, you can’t turn that frown upside down because you can’t find a way in to those scary empty eyes. You think, “Oh Jesus, what happened to HER? She must hate being a mom! Or, maybe she’s always been a miserable person. Maybe she’s the kind of person who does the opposite of light up a room. Or, I guess maybe she just lost something important, like her wallet or her sense of self-worth. If it’s the former, that’s a real hassle, especially calling credit card companies with a kid nearby to throw the self-service menu wildly out of whack. And if it’s the latter, goddamnit, get a grip, woman, you MADE A PERSON, BE FUCKING PROUD OF YOURSELF, OKAY???”
Those aren’t the things you are thinking when I walk by you? OK, well, perhaps my sleep-deprivation induced anxiety has morphed into paranoia laced with low self-esteem.
I took two naps yesterday. I passed out cold as soon as my son konked out in the morning and then I did the same thing again three and a half hours later. You’d have thought we were drugged the way we went down. Mothers of slightly older humans don’t tell new mothers that their sleep may, in fact, not improve as time goes on. Why would you want to scare a a newbie whose body has been changed forever and still hurts for it? You don’t so you lie and say, don’t worry, it’ll get easier.
And, I mean, we all know it does get easier (RIGHT???), but, I am coming to understand, using the small patches of still-effective, non-neurotic brain available to me: you have to work harder to take care of yourself. But you do have to take care of yourself. And if you don’t and you’re still OK, that’s WONDERFUL, but keep it to yourself. People like me will find your nonchalant iconoclasm a threat and will lash out at you for it because people like me are tired and not in their right mind.
I want to be in my right mind, though. So I am going to attempt to revive Blank Hollow Mom. I will start going to bed earlier. I will start saying no to things, like, maybe, a career path that isn’t as meaningful to me anymore and may, in fact, summon stress like a dinner bell does farm children. I will start eating lunches that aren’t composed primarily of muffin crumbs, sardines leftover by my child, hand-torn hunks of counter warmed cheddar cheese, and fistfuls of artificially flavored sunflower seed disks, accompanied by random sips of water from random glasses left around the apartment. I will start saying affirmations to myself daily that are too unabashedly hopeful for me to type here with a straight face. But I will say them, I swear I will. I will put my phone somewhere and forget where that place is.
I will not start smiling at construction workers because they ask me to or humoring people who refer to my child as a ladykiller, but I will start smiling to myself, when I find something funny (like THIS BOOK, the one thing that’s given me giggle fits this week, and I’m not discounting these giggles even though they morphed into five minutes of hysterical sobbing).
I will go to sleep early. This is the hardest, particularly when you’re running a roll call on your daily/long-term failures, but I will sleep. I have to sleep. The answer, the light, the way forward, it all lies in bed, underneath a blanket, its peaceful face still flickering slightly, but its ankles unburdened and its eyes relighting themselves in the dark.
I had this hokey, embarrassing thought the other day — that when I was a kid, the word “like” was to be avoided, that using it in excess made you sound like a moron, but now, my generation of conclusive-sentence avoiders is largely responsible for turning that taboo into the fucking holy grail. We cannot get enough likes! We like! We want to be liked! And we are open about it, shameless even, and, maybe as a result, our talking is littered with likes. And there’s nobody to tell us to stop! Because we are, finally, in charge. We are the parents, the scolders! It’s, like, liberating. And unnerving.
I don’t want to start getting nostalgic this early. I don’t want to croak out things like, “when I was a kid,” cementing my oncoming irrelevance, as well as the likelihood that I will never again wear a pair of on trend pants. I want to not give a shit how people talk. And I kind of don’t. I heard the This American Life piece on vocal fry and found awesome their conclusion that the way we talk is always evolving and if you can’t get on board, you’re old, so shut up.
But I can’t yet make peace with the likes.
The Facebook likes. Some wretched day in the future, my son will create a Facebook profile. He will no longer be frantically trying to put tops on every single item in our apartment or doing impressions of elephants; he will be cropping a photo of himself that he hopes people will find hilarious/hot/intriguing (BARF). This whole thing is freakier to me these days than him mis-stepping his way off playground climbing structures or swallowing a dusty guitar pick. I am not afraid of a lot of things I probably should be afraid of, like bullies or predators or non-child-proofed apartments. I am afraid of him being human. I am afraid of him posting something, anything, an article, a picture of himself, a wry observation about the way shirts fit these days (shirts are going to fit so weirdly in 2030!), and of him waiting for someone to like it. There he will be, an iPhone hooked onto his thumbnail or the top half of his knee or something, his forehead knotted a little, the rest of his face trying to play it cool, as he checks to see if anybody heard him and wants to say so publicly. The idea of this kid waiting to be affirmed by the fascinating hellscape that is social media makes me anxious enough to question why I decided to have a chid at all.
I did not always want to be a mother. My parents graciously provided me with a younger sister to boss around and corral into playing the petite father in the classic American Girl Doll script, “Home Is Where the Heart Is: A Play About Kirsten”, which we performed in our neighbor’s driveway to an audience that was at least a quarter dogs. But then, I became a mother, on purpose, because it felt like there was a baby-shaped space in my life and because a miniature version of my husband sounded fun, interesting, and adorable. Abstract babies are incredible (and flawless and boring)! Real babies are incredible (and terrible and riveting) and I can see how much I did not know was coming because it is very hard to summon feelings for something with whom you have not yet spent a lot of time.
But we’ve done that now, amassed 10,000 hours together, and I anticipate his future approval seeking with the same terror I feel about my own. And, OK, yeah, I’m getting it now, that if I want a future for him that is at least somewhat free of a desire to please, I need to stop trying to please people myself. Crap. Why did I have a kid again? Was it perhaps a masochistic attempt to cultivate at-times overwhelming self-awareness, particularly of my myriad inadequacies? If so, IT WORKED!
Lance and I went out to dinner last Friday for our friend’s birthday and drank wine and had conversations that made us nod a lot in earnest and laugh and we sat outside in a lit up garden space and my arms felt weightless because there was nothing in them. It had been a while since that had happened. We walked through a few neighborhoods to get home and as we approached a quiet part of 6th Avenue, a woman and a man were walking out of an apartment building and his hand was on her elbow and she was taking deliberate steps and her face was focused and blank. There was another woman walking close to them and a third woman came from somewhere in the street, sliding between parked cars to meet the woman and the man, excited, taking the focused woman’s arms gently. The focused woman was in labor. These were her people, holding on to her, at hand to witness things and guard her and be needed. They all wanted to be needed.
The whole scene jammed a golf ball in my throat and we kept walking and I was crying and grinning, idiotically. 15 months ago, I was this woman. Another friend of ours was this woman early in the morning this past Mother’s Day. More and more people I know will be this woman and many more I don’t know will be, too. But until Friday night, I had not seen what the briefly lucid time-outside-time before motherhood actually begins looked like.
I don’t know if there’s a point to my seeing that woman, but I want there to be. I want the point to be that life is happening, heedlessly, away from the crowd of affirmers. The woman and I, we were people wearing spring clothing walking on our legs at night, both of us at the mercy of creatures much smaller than us, and there was no picture or video, except the one in my head. She won’t ever know I liked it. It won’t matter that I did, not to her anyway, because right now, I imagine her arms do not feel weightless. But to me, that image, the one I liked, can matter so much and I can recall it whenever I want and get tears in my eyes and feel the hot buzz of my single glass of wine in my legs and be alive, so luckily alive.
So, in 2030, when my son is nervously tapping away at his fancy hologram thumbnail retina phone, I’ll say to him the things I say to myself, like, “We’re all actually alone, you know, even the cool kids,” and “The internet is horseshit!” and he’ll smile patronizingly, like, “Good try, Mom”. But then I’ll say, “I know it’s a school night and it’s freezing, but let’s go out and get milkshakes or Skittles,” and he will not be able to turn me down because he will like at least one of those options (HE MUST) and he will be too anxious to stay home, twiddling his thumbnail screen. We will take to the streets of Brooklyn and we will see stuff, see people walking their trembling dogs and poorly parking their cars and tripping over patches of ice, all en route somewhere, and we will feel ourselves getting smaller and the world getting bigger and I will still be afraid of my son being human and wanting and waiting, but I will be human too and my humanness will make me impatient for my milkshake, so, instead of worrying, I’ll say, “C’mon, Sly, I’m hungry,” and to the diner we will go.
A few evenings ago, I was dead weight on my couch, breastfeeding my toddler, his ever-lengthening body draped over me like a caftan, and I thought, simultaneously: I am a prisoner. I love this.
I was looking at pictures of other people’s babies on Instagram and then I remembered to look at my child and when I did, I got distracted from thinking about the whole unsolvable anxiety of this being a cool moment and also feeling trapped. I said the words on my son’s pajama shirt - “No Way Dude” - and cracked him up for reasons I do not understand. I said it over and over. “No way, dude!” “No way, dude!” “No way, dude!” He kept choking on milk but he didn’t care.
I thought, “This is a happy time.” I thought, “I love seeing you happy.” I thought, “Am I happy?”
DON’T WORRY EVERYONE, I’M FINE, I’M FINE.
I guess what I mean is: is my kid being happy what’s making me happy now? Or is his happiness just something that concerns me because I’m his mother? Is helping this kid be happy an excuse for me to avoid asking myself the happiness question? I hear myself saying to people, “I don’t want my son to be my whole life!” I hear other people agreeing, “You need a life outside this! It’s good, the being away from him, it’s good!”
And it is good! Of course my working, my writing, my being gone for parts of days, is good. I think it is. I don’t know. It’s happening, so I will just try to make it good. I can see, the more I have to leave my kid with somebody else, how easy it is to start madly justifying your choices and criticizing other people’s because you aren’t sure yet about the exact ways in which you will screw up your kid.
There will be a mess of years for me to be confused about whether being content because your kid is content is inevitable or a choice. By the time I figure it out, if I ever do, it will be too late. I said to my friend, who’s also a mom, “His happiness makes me happy. It does.” And this felt like both the most parental thing I’ve ever said and the most embarrassing and the most true and possibly a lie I’m telling myself.
I would like to wean him off the breast, as they say. But I don’t think he would like it. There are other things he doesn’t like and I say, “fuck it, get used to it.” Sometimes, I am matter-of-fact, like, “you SIT in the tub,” and I am so firm, he sits. Or maybe he sits because he has decided to sit. (Mothers will take credit for anything and I can see, being a mother now with a child who teaches himself much more than I teach him, that we deserve far less credit — and less blame — than we’re afforded.) Sometimes, I act indifferent. He bites it on the playground, head crashing into mulch, missing a giant tree root by an inch, and I do not help him up. He is disoriented but focused. He gets up on his own. I think, “We are living our lives, he and I, two free birds!”
But he doesn’t want to eat his food with his hands lately. So I feed it to him. He screams for me after his docile sitting-down bath and I run to him like he’s being attacked and not held kindly by his kind father who doesn’t necessarily want to be kindly relieved by fucking mama, again. I also breastfeed him. That too. I say to myself, “He is not grown up, we do not live separate lives. He is still relatively newly out of my body.”
My friend who is also a mom said that she thought that I’ll do it until I can’t do it anymore.
I can still do it. I am happy (enough) doing it and maybe he sees that and is like, “She’s smiling, it’s fine!” Actually, he probably does not give a shit what it does for me. He is a 2.5 foot tall creature walking as fast as he can, saying words that sometimes cannot be easily translated. He is trying to survive. I am here now, on this couch, so I do what I can do.
Seven years ago, my boyfriend (who, a bunch of years later, became my husband) and I tried to outrun a thunderstorm in Cape May, New Jersey. We couldn’t outrun it, though, so we ran through it and screamed and sang odd songs and laughed a tiny bit and I cried and we hardly stopped because our motel was several miles away and I thought, “I will be struck by lightning in Cape May,” and “This is so cool,” and “I hate this.”
It was raining yesterday and I had no umbrella and there was no danger, but as I fast walked home from the subway, I thought of Cape May and felt electric.
I know I cannot outrun being all wrapped up in my kid. It’s so overwhelming, but only if I think about it. So I will just run. I will spend parts of my days away from him and feel wretched about it, but also, OK, particularly when I’m distracted. So I will distract myself. I will probably have to distract myself until I’m dead, that is probably the magnitude of how parents come to care.
I don’t know. I’m new to this. It all seems insane, but the storm is here, now, so here I go.
Most days, I do not need to race out my apartment door. This is cool, for sure, but also terrifying. Once Sly finally murmurs, “Bye bye, Dada,” four times after his Dada has left, I look at the oven clock, shudder, and then say in a goofy voice - to undercut my palpable fear - “Jeez Louise, it’s 7:55! Can you believe it?” If I really go there with the voice, get as Carol Burnett as I’m capable of getting, Sly laughs. Otherwise, he stares at me with pity, yanks apart the Velcro on one of his wooden fruits and flings the pieces onto the hardwood floor.
I see the playroom (/living room/family room/dining room) rug beneath me and all of the books we’ve already read or half-read, the toys with which we’ve sort of played. I see my reflection in the black screen of the TV. I wrap my hair up into a bun and see that my son is holding my hair tie. I think the words, “What do we do now?”
At this time of day, before my son’s first nap, there are no classes or mom’s groups, and the playground feels a country away (and looks like a post-apocalyptic hell-patch), and there isn’t time to get anything substantial done, like chopping dinner vegetables or getting a grip on my purpose in life.
And yet, there is still SO MUCH time.
It all feels very poetic, like the beginning of an indie film about a shy but sometimes funny mother who is finding herself, except that the film would cut away after a few seconds of reflection staring. For me, there is no cut away, just the realization that I have to pee and peeing only takes about a minute and we have so many more minutes to fill.
I’ve always liked the sound of other people’s voices, I just particularly like them when they aren’t addressing me. Listening to someone else’s conversations is a delight and a relief for a person with hermetic tendencies as strong as mine. And as it turns out, motherhood in winter rewards the hermetic! You want to hide from most of humankind for a good portion of your day? You want to stay in for the night starting around 5:30 pm? Have a child! A child will provide a shit ton of reasons to do all these things, and more! These sound like jokes because I’m using exclamation points, but, in fact, I really do find this part of motherhood lovely or at least very tolerable about 75% of time. (More on the remaining 25% of the time in another post.) That said, I don’t want to eavesdrop (if I could choose my superpower, it would be either volume or flight, NOT invisibility, which I mastered 20 years ago during the horror show that was puberty). And therein lies the mutually beneficial beauty of the mom podcast.
I listen not only to the week’s most recent episode. I listen to old episodes that I haven’t heard yet and sometimes to an episode that I HAVE heard before, on purpose. I do this a lot. I repeat listen a lot. I’m mortified to admit this because it highlights an obsessive quality of my personality that I could kind of pretend wasn’t there before I had a kid. But, come on, most mom podcasts are only posted once a week so WHAT THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO DO ON THOSE OTHER DAYS?
Every single thing they say is fascinating to me at this moment, in my pitch dark parenting burrow. But it isn’t just the content that’s hooked me, it’s the humanness. The voices of these podcast hosts have become so familiar, I feel the urge to say hi to them every time a show starts in the same sweetly futile way my son says hi to the the least interested, most stone-faced strangers on the street and in our subway car. These other mother’s voices, mothers I don’t ever see in person, populate our two bedroom apartment like friends I’ve invited up. And sometimes the mom guests on a particular week’s episode totally click with the host and it’s magical to witness or it’s like an inside joke and makes me uncomfortable and jealous. Or, the guest doesn’t gel at all with the host and they stumble into these bumpy little impasses and I feel the disconnect, I feel like I have to protect Sly from the disconnect by laughing really loudly at the things the host and guest are saying to demonstrate empathy. In these moments, I say to myself, OK, it’s OK, they’ll find each other again, they’ll get there! But - and this is going to be cheesy, so commence cringing now - I love all of it.
Now, please don’t get worried that this cold weather isolation has turned me into someone whose entire calendar is composed of podcasts. This is (mostly) not the case. I go to an awesome real life mom’s group, I schedule playdates like it’s my job, and I go out with my friends who don’t have kids (or at least, we make plans and sometimes things actually pan out). But none of that stuff can happen at 8 in the morning. And even if it could, it would NOT involve 60 plus minutes of uninterrupted candid back and forth TALKING about the glorious swampland that is taking care of a human to whom you are related.
These days, uninterrupted conversations are nearly impossible to sustain when there’s a baby in the room. The brilliance of the mom podcast is that someone like me, someone who, in spite of her stamina for large hunks of time alone with her kid, needs at least a solid whiff of soulful, funny, odd, and SUSTAINED conversation between two people without having to hire a babysitter or bear the weather or open my heart, in earnest, to the wooden bus driver lady who sits in the front of my son’s wooden play bus. Mothering is lonely, even for introverts. I think listening to a couple of moms talk about their lives, especially the quiet, unseen, quotidian parts of their lives as moms, is a reminder that these moments matter. These moments are kind of everything. And anyone can have them, kid not required. Kids and babies are just great facilitators of small moments because that is their currency. And, this winter especially, I’ve needed help justifying why it is also mine. Maybe soon I won’t need a podcast to do that.
Though I doubt it.