What we're loath to say

There are days in which the degree of highs and lows takes me clear by surprise. In my 40s, I increasingly rarely feel actual surprise. Disappointment? For sure. Disgust? Yep. A grim sort of foregone conclusion? Uh huh.

But outright surprise is harder to come by these days and is usually reserved for horrors like untimely death. Or the continued cancer of the current “president.” How that man gets grosser and grosser is truly astounding, but maybe that’s my naiveté and ever-hopefulness.

In any case, what I will say is that there are moments in which parenting cuts you off at the knees so brutally, so painfully, so egregiously, and so quickly that it takes your breath away. The method of harm, the size of the input force, is not directly correlated to the degree of issue or transgression; that, further, is part of the gasping pain.

I have largely stopped writing about parental challenges, recognizing that my boys, as they grow up, are more aware of what I do and share, more private and rightfully so, and more distinct as formed (forming) humans. Their voices are theirs; their lives belong to them. The space I have left as their mother, in terms of writing and public processing, is increasingly small. This is as it should be, in my opinion. What remains is MY experience as their mom, what I can capture as personal experience distinct from theirs.

This terrain is less charted with regards to the “mommy blog” and pediatric spheres. Sure, you have a general sense of tweendom, but each tween is such a unique being, interplaying in such specific ways with their hormones, family, peers, school, classes, personal struggles, interests, identities, and so forth. What you can expect at 12 years is infinitely more complicated, generally speaking, that what you can expect at 12 months. Perhaps this is actually what makes parenting adolescents so vexing: each of us is always dealing with a new challenge.

I’m actually not much interested, tonight, in delving into research or generalizations. What I am is tired and furious and in love and sad and over it. And tomorrow looms. And that stops for nothing.

What I want to say but am sometimes shy to say; what I think so many of us want to say but are loath to for a variety of reasons that irk the shit out of me, is that sometimes this whole parenting gig just sucks. It sucks and blows so hard that it takes my breath away and renders me speechless and pissed.

It leaves me having spent all day making a special meal to find myself standing in my pjs with the show I’d been wanting to watch all day on pause because a note from a teacher just came about a missed assignment that was now a zero and suddenly, everyone is screaming and in tears. Is someone kidding? It’s both real and absurd. It’s the complete opposite of how I envisioned tonight and so very much wanted it to be.

At the end of the day, the gumbo was one of the best I’ve made, and the fighting and crying probably made us closer, and that show isn’t that good anyway. But still. It all felt so damn fraught and not remotely easy and also not remotely efficient or timely, and seriously, WTF?

The gumbo was loved and there is more for tomorrow. The banjo was played, and lovingly so. The paper will be better, but still a deserved zero. The book remains forgotten at school for another damn day. The Bach on the piano is being studiously avoided. The wine bottle is less full. We are all tired. And maybe this is the best of family, and the worst, and real life. But sometimes I sure wish it was easier.

On any given Momday

Y'all, I cannot even believe how exhausting parenting is. Daily, certainly, but sometimes even hour by hour. It's like an absurd vortex of love, fatigue, revulsion, excrement, boot camp, servitude, diplomacy, and groundhog day. I think this is what, my seventh year of writing about this? my twelfth year of feeling it? The shock never wears off.

You know not when the whirl will touch down. You know not where its eye lies. Are your levies strong? Did the Army Corps bungle the job before these spawn were even twinkles in your eye? Do you have plastic gloves? The ability to set your brain and insanity meter outside of your own physical self? Are you an improvisation genius?

When Oliver was little and had made clear that his preferred sleeping schedule was literally anytime until 4:45am -DAILY- I started putting him to bed at 4:45pm. It's one thing to wake up at 4:45am one day or two a month, but every day and with a 3-year-old, two pets, and a husband in tow? Hilarious.

I hired a "sleep consultant" immediately, had her on speed dial in place of 911, and spent a small fortune attempting to sleep. 

I did not sleep. But the good news is that now at 9, Oliver sleeps until 6 and does not even think to wake anyone until 6:45. Nonetheless, I am still making up for eighteen months of daily pre-dawn, ready-to-play rooster calls. 

Who knew that poetry would be such an extreme nails-down-the-chalkboard-24/7 for both boys? Whoever tells you that your children, at 2 years and 9 months apart, will probably one day, when you wonder if finally you've made it to 8 minutes in Easy Town, be forced to intensively study poetry for months at the SAME TIME? You are immediately Deloreaned backwards to the many years of your adolescence during which your mother tried, bless her heart, to make you feel her extremely ardent love of poetry. 

Is poetry concurrently taught/mandated in 3rd and 6th grades some sort of karmic retribution? 

You do wonder. 

No one tells you that at the same time your children start to do private things in their rooms, they will both refuse to clean those rooms but also still desperately want you to come in there and check on them and tuck them in. Holy stale air, people.

No one tells you that just when middle school-puberty-geekness-coolness-fad item'ness kicks in and thus you, parents, are exhausted AF by 6pm, you'll actually have to stay awake listening to and feeding your offspring until at least 9pm which is an hour after you want to go to bed and all the hours past the time you and your partner could actually have some quality catch-up time. 

It is unclear to me that even once during the "best thing in the whole world, all my heart" biz I was told about being a mother, did anyone say, "Sometimes you will absolutely wonder if you can go on. You will wonder how you will swallow another worry, another frustration, another iota of insane boredom. You will wonder what of you will come out on the other side." 

At least a quarter of every day is inane. Why is old poop still in the guest room toilet? Is it possible to wipe your face clean OF THE ICE CREAM FROM TWO DAYS AGO THAT I'VE ASKED YOU TO REMOVE 983 TIMES? Have you done your homework? What does procrastination mean? Are you trying to tell me you don't know how to put the Legos into the Lego bin?

And then there are the big-ticket items? The ones you knew were part of adulthood but also the ones you thought you'd left behind with high school graduation or hoped your child would bypass completely? How will we afford X, Y, or Z? Is this something to worry about? Yes? So, who can we call? What help can we get? Why does that child/parent continue to act in such ugly/hurtful ways? Why is that parent so competitive? Am I doing it wrong?

And then there's your own attempt at self-definition. At boundaries. 

And then there's a marriage to maintain. Friendships. That book that's been beckoning to you for months. 

The funny thing is that when you think you cannot go on, you do. And then you get a break, and you miss them. Miss them? Yes. You miss the egregious Hansel trail of gross crumbs that leads all ants to your living room. You miss the sticky hands that clutch you tight and whisper "Thank you" amidst snotty tears. You don't miss flushed toilets, but you do miss the silliness of naked runners and dog houses and spy-like sprites who have been cloistered in your closet forever even though you'd checked there and still changed into pajamas. 

Today I taught one to make pie. I cleaned up and enjoyed a wonderful client. I taught one how to GooGone a gummy blade, and I raked compost over my to-be vegetable garden. I vacuumed and wrote a grocery list and finally screamed "I cannot hear about this poem ONE MORE TIME." I filled out forms and fed the cat and washed dishes and thought about how hard it's been for me lately, to own and share all this shit. For it does seem mundane and dull. But it's also real, and sometimes I cannot fathom how we'll get them to college. It's so many years away.

But then I panic. It's so few years away. And then they may need to snuggle but they probably won't want to. And they'll still leave trails of crumbs but be attitudey about cleaning up. And they won't need me to teach them about GooGone, and they might not laugh over dumb jokes that are funny simply because of the potty humor element. They may not hear me when I try to teach. "Exposing yourself is a crime," boys. "Really?" they said. As if they would ever do that but also, god, don't leave anything to chance. #boys

Last week, the dental hygienist who takes such good care of me and for whom I feel true affection was racist, classist, and trans-phobic, all in one cleaning! Her efficiency! I was so taken aback. And so sad. The only thing I managed to rebut, in between her scraping my stains and gums clean, was by saying I believed it was exceedingly rare for men to pretend to be trans in order to take advantage of women in female restrooms. 

The man "who exposed himself in the women's restroom...well, you know, he was black" comment as well as the "a janitor at the college. You have to wonder who takes a job like that. Maybe mental illness?" commentary did not sit well with me. But as with so much in parenting, we are ill-trained to immediately and effectively respond to such statements.

I wrote a letter to this dear woman. I hope that she hears me, or least doesn't shut me out. I hope she might see that exposing oneself has zero to do with skin color. And that many people work the jobs they can get to take care of their families. And that maybe her own fears -for her children, herself, her world- are actually at the heart of these biased, ugly statements. Not race. Not class. Not mental status.

It seemed germane tonight, round about bathtime and snotty tears about poetry and jesus h christ the end of the weekend, to mention that exposing oneself is a crime and that standing up for what you believe to be inclusive and fair is the best path forward even when it's scary because the recipient is a lovely middle-aged woman who really loves her children and fears for their welfare, as we all do for ours. 

An encounter on the train

Just after 9am, I slide into the fourth car of the southbound red line train, between, what I quickly realize, is a quiet lull in her screams. Headachy, tired, energy and thoughts focused on the day ahead, I sink into the first available forward-facing seat (motion sickness is never what I need) and pull a slim paperback from my tote. 

As we roll away from the station, the child begins howling again, guttural, high-pitched wails that reverberate throughout our car. Such screams would always be dissonant, but they are especially so in this sleepy time, in this dim place. 

The screams are near, and as I click my head from twelve o'clock to ten, hoping my left peripheral can grasp some evidence of source, I see her. Two rows back, hair in tiny, ramrod straight pigtails, body sheathed in a turquoise winter coat. There is another parka-clad child -a sibling?- with similarly styled hair, and a shadow of a person attempting to corral them. English is interlaced with a language I cannot place.

Throughout the car, mostly full of solo voyagers in various stages of dress and wakefulness, eyes cast, subtly and obviously, towards the trio two rows behind me. Gawking. Avoiding. Disdaining. Worrying. Wondering. 

The woman- I gather she is she from the tenor of her voice- is so tall and thin she resembles a scarecrow. Her short-cropped hair is sheathed in a knit winter cap. She has given one child her phone, but that has provoked warfare.

One child beats the other -I don't use the word 'beat' irresponsibly- with the gifted phone about the face and brow. The woman screams and issues seating placements. "You here, you there." Always she keeps one encircled in a bony arm. The child forced from the embrace resists exile and screams louder. Frustration, anger, sadness, desire all wrapped into a vocal vortex emanating from her tiny throat.

The tension in the car mounts.

The woman changes tack- she begs, pleads, embraces both children, one gaunt arm per one robust child. Peace is not established. 

I have put away my book. I am aware that my heart is beating rapidly and that my mouth is dry. I want desperately to intervene, but can I? Would some foray into their trio be welcome? Offensive? Rebuffed? Based, simplistically, on the foreign tongue dancing around me, still I cannot place it, would I be making a giant cultural misstep? And anyway, what would I do, and how? 

I scan the car and take in others' coping mechanisms. Louder, perkier conversation with seat mates, ear buds quietly plunged atop pounding drums, baleful looks, disparaging glances. 

My stop is approaching, and the children have not calmed. I swivel over my left shoulder, and without thinking, look directly at the source of most of the screams. I smile at her, whisper "hi sweetie," and wave. As I'm sure my children would have, she pauses, musters a jagged inhale, overcomes her suspicion, and smiles back.

She is beautiful. Face full, pigtails standing at attention, most recent tears drying on lashes and cheeks.

"Would you like an orange?" I hold up a fresh satsuma, glistening with produce wax, and hold it out to her across the empty row between us.

The woman sighs, "Take it," she says with a fatigue I recognize. "Take it."

Gently, I move back, erasing the separative space. Cautiously, I lean toward the woman. Cautiously I ask if she is OK.

"They are twins. They do this to me all the time. Fighting, screaming. I am so tired. My blood pressure is high. I am a single mother to these girls. We are heading out."

Her hollow eyes, her willingness to share with me. She is on the precipice of bursting. Of not being able to handle even one more straw. 

I know this place. I have been there. More than once. If one doesn't have reason to be fully dressed and riding into the city at 9am, the drive is desperation. 

"You must be exhausted," I tell her, putting my arm around her shoulders gently. "You must be so tired. I have two as well. It is so hard." 

The little girls are making sweet eyes at me, and I at them. One tense moment has been diffused. I have always been grateful for those moments of dissolution. Those moments of reprieve when I can take a full breath. I hope this mother feels she can breathe a bit.

The four of us get off at the same stop. I will head to a conference that thrills my soul. I don't know where this family is going.

I kneel down and hold the hand of the one to whom I offered the orange.  I look into their eyes and smile. "Sweet girls, will you be kind to your mother? She is such a good mom. No hitting, just hugs, ok? Can you do that?" They smile and nod, and one peels a bit more rind from the orange.

I stand and look at the mother and take in her shell shock and exhaustion. I hug her tight to me. "I know you must be so very tired. Good luck, ok?" 

They walk toward one exit. Mine is in the opposite direction. I watch them for just a moment, brightly-colored parkas and orange peel and the halting gait of a stretched mother moving farther and farther away. 

I exit at 9th and G and think of them during the half-mile to my destination. Where were they going? What will they do today? Will they be OK?