While I pored over the second galley proof of the literary magazine I edit with one of my nearest and dearest colleague-friends and a too-strong cup of caramel coffee, I received the following text from my husband: “Evangeline just took her first step!” He and our three kids had been at Grammy’s house for the afternoon while I slipped away during naptime to take care of some emergency editing (there is actually such a thing, and it, as you might guess, falls squarely and surely under the heading of “first world problems”).
I’d just gotten settled into an empty house by clearing the dining room table, adorned with half a bouquet of flowers I’d stolen from my mother-in-law after she’d performed a flirty flapper’s rendition of “Button Up Your Overcoat” at a continuing education showcase program and asked me to put them in water for a while since I’d be going straight home.
I’d even prepared my apology in advance for the rest of the house. It’s briefer than ever these days: “You’ll have to forgive the house with the exception of this dining room table. I’m not gifted in housekeeping.” I sometimes work in the word “knack.” I find it charming and use it in hopes that it distracts from the dust. The idea that people dust and vacuum weekly really is so foreign to me. I applaud those of you who do it, and I’ll work the word aplombinto my language massage if it makes you forgive me for the dirt and dog-hair tumbleweeds lining the hallway in the meantime.
E apologizes sometimes. This is her right after she ripped a page from one of my books. Is it just me, or do her eyebrows slightly raise as if to say, “You know I’m only eight months old, right? You didn’t think I was just going to turn the page like an Oxford grad, did you?” She has a gift for the “shame on you” look. If she chooses motherhood someday, she’ll be brilliant at it. I could learn so much from this little (n.).
And this little, this eight-month, nearly nine-month wonder, walks as if it’s a brief wish in a line of longer, loftier ones. My son was dragging his legs military-crawl-style with two eager and determined elbows for months before pulling up. This is him.*
He didn’t walk until he was fourteen months old, so the text was not only telling me our daughter had walked her first steps but also that she was some kind of superhero. The papers should have been notified that moment, actually. I’m not sure what I’m doing just putting it on a blog. This is actual news. Someone with a camera not in their phone should have been on call to photograph it.
My colleague’s response, when I read the text, was one of regret, like “Oh, you missed it!”
I shrugged it off, “Oh, she’s the third. And she’ll never know.” We both agreed the story should go that I was there, and it was amazing. No one needed to know anything but that.
But the more the missed first step settles in, the more my heart goes in two directions. Half of me says that she should get ready for me to miss many more things. It’s just not possible for me to be two places at once, and I’m needed so many places at once sometimes. The other half of me remembers winning a spelling bee, among many events, my dad could not attend because of work, and knew that because it even came to mind, it mattered much more than I wanted it to.
My son calls me out on it often. He is nearly three, and he is incredibly bright. That fourteen-month-walking jig was up really quick when we realized that was his giving us a head start because he hasn’t stopped since. His brain doesn’t stop. Like my oldest, he is intuitively wise. He knows that the front yard is no place for a laptop when the weather is good, and we’ve got a bucket of sidewalk chalk calling our names.
I thought I was killing it as Mom last week. Papers had to be graded; kids had to be raised. One beach chair on the front walk later, and boom—WorkingMamaPalooza. Lies. All lies. He walks up, presses a few keys, closes the laptop, and says, “No laptop, Mommy. You done.” Smart kid.
I have enough Working Mother’s Guilt for all of us, and I’m done being distracted with questions of semantics, like why there isn’t anything like Working Father’s Guilt, or speculating about the answers some churchly friends would say in response to my bringing up Working Father’s Guilt—questions I get all the time anyway, like “Are you still working?” and “Are you a liberal?”
Guilty or not, I’ll say I feel being caught in the gap between books and babies some days. I am fully present and all in with whatever’s in front of me, but some days, it’s a revolving door. In the past three weeks, we’ve had five sinus infections, an allergic reaction to medication, four trips to the pediatrician, three trips to the pharmacy, two days of missed work, a couple hundred dollars bet on recouping, and a thousand loads of laundry. Seriously, it probably would have been easier to just move or buy new children. But, we’re very nearly well, so things are looking up. This was E before she broke out in hives. The calm before the storm really only means a storm is coming. It’s nothing to relax or take a cocky selfie about. Yet, here we are.
Sickness is a monkey wrench thrown into the Swiss clock of our household constitution. We cannot be sick. The whole thing goes to hell.
I’ve been consumed lately with the notion of “breathing room,” or “adding margin to my life,” but the trouble is I’ve been living with time credit cards, and the debt piles up until we get sick, and it’s a feeling very similar to playing Level 10 in Tetris on no sleep while someone is kicking you in the face. I’ve been so consumed with these notions that my study of breathing room, margin, and recreational reading have begun eating into that margin that would have been there, so I’m maxed out again.
When someone shakes a pity noggin or points a finger of shame in my direction, I want to tell them that it could be worse. I could be doing drugs. But honestly, I’d never waste money or time on drugs while hummus and Downton Abbey still exist, and they’d call my bluff. Everyone knows what I’m about: Jonathan and Jesus. Anything else is window dressing.
Still, how do I do it? I’ve never known how to explain it before, that sense that I’m busy but managing just fine, that I’m tired but not broken, that I’ll keep doing what I’m doing because I’m called to be here and there, that heavy hope that this is okay and we are fine, but the words came today, as they always do.
I focus on the honey, not the hive.
*(It should be he, not him, because it’s a subject complement, but honestly, who’s doing that these days. If I would have put in he, half of you would have thought I were wrong and roughly the other half would have thought I were pompous. It would be only that sweet spot of 1% that championed me and my whole grammar fight, and with my slack-jawed and mostly intentional word mangling [I call them letter butterflies sometimes], I doubt you all read these things. Thanks to those who hang in there despite me.)by