On Motherhood in a crisis

The last week has been a whirlwind of stress, pain, exhaustion and moments of absolute clarity.  It all started last Thursday when my husband and I learned that his father had been injured in some sort of accident on the job and had been rushed to the hospital.  We live several states away, so there was immediate panic.  How bad is it?  Is he going to be okay?  Could we get my husband out there if we needed to?  Thanks to the generosity of my parents, my friends, and a handful of random strangers, we were able to raise the funds and airline miles to fly my husband out to be with his family.  As I’m writing this, my father-in-law has yet to regain consciousness, although his eyes sometimes open and his fingers sometimes move, which is better than where things had been.

It is so surreal, being out here while my husband is out there, trying to be the still point in a turning world when the center of gravity seems out of place.

I can’t say I know how hard it has been on my husband.

I do know, to some degree, how hard it has been on my children.  I can’t say how many times in the past week it seemed like the household turned from happiness to panicked chaos in a split second.  One moment we’re talking about our favorite My Little Ponies, the next minute it’s, “what happens if Pappy dies?”  One second it’s plans for the Minecraft server, the next it’s, “what if Pappy stays alive but never wakes up?”

Questions I can’t answer.  I long for the good old days of just having to explain that it is dark earlier because of the way the earth tilts on it’s axis and that the sky looks blue because of how our brain interprets the refraction of light.  That stuff is child’s play compared to explaining how when there’s bleeding inside of the brain, the brain can’t send signals the way it should and…  ugh.

We’re walking through the store and it’s this ghost that haunts us.  I want to lay down and cry, but I can’t.  I have to buy the groceries and clean the fridge and fold the laundry and check the homework and cook the meals, and meanwhile these questions follow me around the house in the irresistible and unignorable form of my children, panicking every time I have to think before answering.  “Why can’t Pappy talk on the phone?  Will he ever talk on the phone?”  I cook the food, I serve the food.  We sit around the table and try to act like nothing is missing.  “I don’t like eating at the table without Daddy.  Can we just watch a movie?”

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Time for bed.  Time to try to act like we can do this.  Change into pajamas, brushing teeth.  Here come the tears again.  “I don’t like going to sleep without daddy praying first.”  “We can try to call daddy.”  “Daddy is with Pappy.”  And here it comes again.  The kids keep getting out of bed, coming to see what I’m doing.  Wipe the tears quickly before they pop their heads in the room.  Smile.  Keep smiling.  Tuck them back in, again and again.  Be firm but not angry.  You have to sleep, you have to go to school in the morning.  Yes, it’s very sad that daddy isn’t here and we don’t know when Pappy will wake up, but in the meantime we have our lives to live.

Monkeypants keeps me up until midnight.  I sneak a few moments of silence before laying down, wake up before everyone else so that I have a moment to clear my head.  Wake the kids up with tickles and laughter, try to keep the questions at bay.  On the way to school they creep back in.  “My teacher asked about Pappy, what do I say?”  Smile, say that we’re keeping hope, we’re staying positive, daddy will be back home soon.  “Will Pappy wake up before daddy comes home?”  We can’t know.  “What if Pappy doesn’t wake up?”

Whatever happens, we’ll be okay.  We have each other and we love each other.

“Don’t fall down and hit your head until your brain bleeds,” my son says in a very serious voice.

I put my hand over my heart, “I promise to try not to,” I say, “but no matter what happens, you would be okay.  I know you would.”

He shakes his head, “I don’t like the fact that people get hurt and die,” he says.

No one likes that.  Who would?

Another bedtime, this time with less tears.  Another night where I’m up past midnight, putting them in bed again and again and again.  I wonder how little sleep I need to survive.  6 hours a night doesn’t seem like quite enough.  I make coffee in the mornings, I never make coffee.  I smile.  The questions are quieter today.  They aren’t always asked, but I see in their eyes, I see the questions they aren’t asking so I smile, I hold them tight, I speak softly as I check the homework and put out the food.  The questions always come out eventually.  “How much blood can come out of a brain?  Like, all the blood in the body?”

Gosh, that’s a good question.

“Do they put more blood back in him?  How does that work?”

I need to take more physiology classes.  The two weeks we spent on the brain in Psychology are not enough.  We Google things and talk about them.  “I hit my head on everything.  It seems stupid to put something as important as a brain in somebody’s head when they might just fall down and break it forever.”

We talk about miracles and people who come out of comas after months or years.

“I don’t want Pappy to be asleep for that long.”

No one does, but Pappy’s job is to sleep and heal and our job is to wait.

Another day, and another.  I find myself randomly nodding off on the couch while Monkeypants plays in the other room.  Wake up!  It’s not over yet.  My job is to stay awake and wait.  And I wonder, how long can I hold off my own questions, my own tears?  How long can I keep showing them how to be brave and keep hope?

8 days in, I realize the truth.  I can do it as long as I have to.  I can do it forever.  As long as their eyes are watching me, I can do whatever is asked of me, because in proving to them that everything will be okay, I prove it to myself.

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“You work and go to school? Who takes care of your kids?”

So I’ve seen this blog post getting linked around Facebook, and I’ve mostly scrolled by it with a good-natured “harrumph”.  It’s Matt Walsh writing about how his wife is doing a bang-up job of raising his kids, what with the birthing life into being and instilling of morals and hygiene and societal values while staying at home and never having a career anymore.  Most of the people I’ve seen linking to it are stay-at-home moms, and I don’t want to disparage what they do.  But one friend of mine took exception to Walsh’s tone because it seemed really patronizing to the mothers who do work, and that made me think about a lot of things.

Let me start by saying that being a stay at home mom is hard, incredibly hard.  I did it for five years, and looking back I think it was more emotionally draining and difficult than parenting while working.  You never get to clock out of being a parent, especially when your kids are on top of you every second of the day and a good bit of the night.  It’s hard to deal with feeling unappreciated and unproductive.  It’s nice to get a pat on the back every once in a while from someone who affirms stay-at-home-mommyness as something of a sacred calling.  But being a working mother is a whole different type of hard, and while I can’t say the two are equal or unequal, what I can say is it takes a strong-ass woman to do either with any amount of grace.  Women who manage to actively raise their kids into productive members of society in today’s world deserve praise REGARDLESS of their employment status.

My family needed me to have an income, so I went to work.  Then, I went to school and work.  And it’s funny, because while my professional life post-stay-at-home-mommydom has gotten me many “god bless your heart” pouts and shoulder rubs and people with wide eyes saying, “how do you MANAGE?”; there’s a lot less of a sense of screw-everyone-else solidarity amongst working women than there was in the stay at home mom world.

I suppose there’s a feeling that we’re betraying someone, or something.

It doesn’t help when people, in feigned congratulations of my courage, say things like “so you go to school AND you work?  Who takes care of your kids?”

Um, I do.  And their dad.  We raise our children together, thanks for implying that I am somehow crippled as a mother because there are hours I am not home.  No, I can’t always pick them up from school or tuck them in to bed.  But I am present in their lives, the moon that pulls their tides, regardless of if I am available to them every second of the day (including bathroom breaks) or if I am only with them for two hours.  What matters is if the connection to them is actively nurtured.  What matters is when over dinner I ask them what the happiest and saddest moment of their day was.  What made you feel victorious?  What made you feel like you failed?  What will you work harder at tomorrow and what you do differently?  What can I do for you?  Is there anything you want to talk about?  Want to cuddle and read a book?  Need me to mend the sleeve of your dress?

I mean, I may have to boil a days worth of parenting into a few hours sometimes, but there are other days I’m home all day.  There are days where I give my essay project the middle finger and decide to make cupcakes with my daughter or play Minecraft with my son.  I still actively work at being a parent.  I do not shove that responsibility off on anyone else (except their father, who actively shares it).

Being a mother is hard.  Being a parent is hard.  It’s hard whether or not you work.  All of the reasons to stay at home, or to go to work, belong to the parent and not to society.  Stay at home moms need to ask themselves if they have the patience.  Can they go for a few years without even peeing alone or reading a book uninterrupted?  This is a serious question, because child abuse happens when they cannot.  Working moms have to ask themselves can they feel connected to their child if someone else is the one seeing the first steps, hearing the first word?  Can they marvel at their children without having to know every detail?  These are serious questions.  My dad got a lot of Monkeypants’s firsts.  That was really difficult for me.  But you know what?  I get her everydays, and her everydays do not suck.  They amaze me.

Mothers shouldn’t have to stay at home to be congratulated and praised.  Fathers should be praised, too.  You know why?  Because like Matt Walsh says we bring life into the world and we rear it… regardless of whether or not we have another job.  We worry about our children and we do our best to raise them well.  We give ourselves to them, we center our efforts around them… and, yeah, sometimes we make getting or keeping or furthering careers a priority because as a parent we have a responsibility to ourselves as well.  We have a responsibility to model how to be a good member of society, and sometimes that means learning how to be a doctor or a schoolteacher or a nurse or an accountant or what have you.  And sometimes for financial or spiritual or personal reasons that means staying at home.

Sure it does.

But whatever being a parent means, we shouldn’t all have to be competing with each other to prove that we are somehow good parents regardless of how we live our lives.  We’re good parents because of who we are to our children and who they are to us.

 

Musings on Determination

So a few very short weeks ago, my daughter decided on the spur of the moment that she really needed a frog.  She found an old aquarium in the shed, got it cleaned up, and announced that she was saving up money.  I looked at her allowance jar, which was crammed full of crumpled dollar bills, and told her that she already had enough money.  Aquatic frogs are $2, food for them is $2 more, and she had money to spare.  Mission accomplished.

While we were at the store, she happened to spot a chameleon.  A new obsession was formed before we were even back out in the car.  Princess says, “MOM.  I want a chameleon.  Bad.”

I turn to her father, thinking, “what do I say?”  He is clearly looking at me and thinking the same.  I say, “well, maybe if you saved up money we could buy a terrarium for your birthday…?”  My husband nods, and I think, “Oh thank God we dodged a bullet.”  It had taken her a few months to put back fifty cents here and fifty cents there and finally have enough money to want to buy anything.  How long would it take before she wanted to buy a few candy bars, or a new book, and decided that saving up the money for a chameleon was just too much work?

But, no.  Princess was googling things like “what does a chameleon eat?” and “what does a chameleon live in?” and pretty soon “how to raise mealworms” and “good plants for a chameleon” and she was drawing up diagrams and randomly announcing things like “WE WILL NEED TO BUY MORE PLANTS” and “FLOWERS ARE OKAY”.  And one day a couple of different terrariums were in my Amazon shopping cart and she was announcing, “I’ll need the one that costs more than one hundred dollars I think.”

So I sat down and explained to her that even cutting her grandpa’s roses for five dollars every week, she would just barely make enough money to buy the chameleon, and there were limits to what her dad and I could afford to spend.  If she wanted that terrarium, she would need to make a little more money.  She said, “I want my Chameleon for the fourth of July.”

Oh, sweetheart.  Oh, you darling naive girl.  I explained to her that such a thing meant making a whole lot of money in just a few weeks.  “Mom, have you ever needed to make a whole lot of money in just a few weeks?”

Oh, sure, I used to make and sell jewelry.  Once I wrote a book.

Princess very matter-of-factly replies that she doesn’t want to write a book, but I should see if any of my friends need new jewelry.  “I’m good at making jewelry.”

This is true, she’s good at making jewelry.

So Princess started asking who needed jewelry, and in a few days she had $30 dollars.  Then she had $100.  I told my husband we should start thinking about how we were coming up with our share of the money.  “If she wants it before her birthday she needs to figure out how to pay for it.”

God help us, I thought, she’s only eight.  But I guess we all need to learn hard lessons somehow.

Never mind.  By the end of two weeks she had enough orders to buy the Super-Mega-Terrarium-Of-Awesome-Proportions, we were just waiting for checks to come in.  Then she threw a curveball, and spent a third of her money on making Super Expensive Necklaces for her grandmothers.  Oh, Princess.  It wasn’t a big deal, she said, she could still make more money.

And she did.

I tell you that whole story to tell you something else:  no one told her that she was just eight.  She didn’t realize eight-year-old girls don’t buy themselves $50 dollar lizards that come needing $100 terrariums and another $100 in accouterments.   She set a goal for herself, and heaven provide for anyone that didn’t buck up and get in line.  (Including her mother, who had to take her to the bead store every morning and do the finishing on freak-ton of necklaces and address twenty envelopes and make payment arrangements and keep the books.  All of this as Priority One on Princess’s daily “to-do” lists, above even breakfast.*)  She set her goal, and then she looked at the world around her and tried to figure out what she had available so she could meet it.

She didn’t look at the world around her before setting her goal.

She didn’t ask anyone’s opinion of if her goal even made sense.

See, I realize there are times I did things backwards.  I asked people if my goals made sense, then I looked at the world around me, and I decided I needed different goals.  I didn’t ask myself how much my goals mattered and then mangle reality to my will.

I’ve decided that I’m going to hold off on explaining to Princess that she’s still a little kid and sometimes she can’t make the world give her what she wants.  May that be true, sometimes?  I suppose it must, eventually,  it is when she wants to sneak out of bed and get chocolate ice cream, or when she wants to force her brother to wear a princess outfit so she can be Iron Man for once.  I mean, it’s true as often as it needs to be.  But about the other stuff, the stuff that has to do with her dreams, does it need to be true?  I’m guessing if I don’t kill her optimism it will be less often than I think, even if it’s more often than she wants.

The truth of the matter is that I don’t want to break her.

I need to figure out how it is that she does it.

 

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*There are limits.  I did eat breakfast first.

Life with Dogs.

Two things happened back to back this week that have left me feeling unusually contemplative.  The first is that my dog Charlie was in a car accident.  She seems to be healing well, nothing was broken and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of permanent damage, but it made my heart stop.  I called the dogs in and one came but the other didn’t.  The neighbor dogs were all wining and jumping at their fences which was so strange, because normally they bark at me.  I saw a truck pulled over off the side of the road and a man holding what at first looked like a black garbage bag.  Then my heart dropped out of my body because I realized it was my dog.  I ran over and waved him down, and he handed me the dog and said, “it’s bleeding.”

All I could think was that she HAD to be okay, there was not a universe in which she was allowed to leave us so soon after joining our family.  My daughter adores her and uses her as a pillow and a napkin and a blanket and her silent partner in crimes.  She’s not even two yet, she doesn’t know about things dying.  And she’s way too young to know.  I saw that Charlie was bleeding, from behind one ear.  Her hair was matted there, and she wasn’t even looking at me.  I took her inside, wrapped her in a couple of towels, and set her down on the couch while I tried to figure out what to do.  Her brother, Sparkle, started flipping out, alternating between licking her face and asking to play and yipping at me and pulling on pants to try to get me to do something.  Of course I had no idea what to do.  By that point, it had only been a few minutes, Charlie was already starting to make a little sound and move around.  I felt like we had all just barely missed a huge tragedy.  What if I hadn’t seen the man get out of the truck?  What if I’d waited a few more minutes to call in the dogs?  What if, what if, what if.

But “what if” didn’t happen.  Charlie is going to be fine.

The next day, Neil Gaiman’s dog died.  All I can think is that it’s this huge thing, to lose a pet.  Our pets are in a very real way a part of ourselves.  They give us back a part of ourselves that we don’t have to acknowledge if we live without them.  There is a part of man that was made to be in the wilderness, to tend to wild things.  When we invite wild things into our homes we bring that part of ourselves back to life.  There’s also a tenderness they teach us that nothing else can.  Sometimes we don’t realize what our mood is, when we are angry or sad, but our dogs know.  They’ll play with us when we’re playful and when we are angry they will give us that lookthe ears flat on the skull, head butting against our shins look, the look that says, this is painful, please don’t be this way.”

Dogs also make you be responsible.  If you don’t pick up your jammies, they claim them.  If you leave out the legos they eat them.  If you don’t clean up the lunch, they appropriate it.

I wouldn’t want to have to live without them.  I’m glad I don’t have to yet, but I know that my daughter will probably still be too young to have her driver’s license when Charlie does die, and that breaks my heart.

But, still, I think that even if she did understand death right now she would gladly bear the pain of it later to have her pillow, her blanket, her conspirator, her closest friend to stay at her side now.  And I wouldn’t give up Charlie now to spare that pain later, either.  That pain is the price we have to pay for keeping our whole selves alive.

 

It’s okay.

Baby and Charlie

Communion with animals

My daughter recently inherited an albino frog in a fishbowl.  Through this seemingly insignificant change to our household I’ve come to a far greater understanding of how badly we, as humans, need non-humans around.  My son and daughter constantly ask me how “Blogger” (That’s his name, a childish inability to pronounce “frogger”) is doing.  They stand beside his bowl and give running commentary on everything he does.  “He’s hiding!  Now he’s swimming!  Now his head is out of the water!  He ate food!”  They ask me if he’s very bored, does he watch videos, what makes him happy.

And I explain to them that animals are not like humans.  That Blogger doesn’t think like we do.  That all he wants is to swim, and hide, and wrestly with his seaweed.  That as long as he has food and his water is kept clean, he will be a happy little frog.  And they marvel at this, they marvel at him.

I have to say that I marvel at him, as well.  His home is on the corner of the computer desk, so as I sit and work I see him out of the corner of my eye, constantly.  There is something very comforting in his solidity, his reality.  There is something about having a living creature sharing this space with me that gives me hope.  It probably seems foolish, I know.  It’s not like he’s a cat or a dog, he’s a frog the size of my thumb!  But he is real, and he does seem happy in his own way.  His first day here was not a happy one.  He hid in the rocks at the bottom of his bowl the whole day.  When he did move it was sluggish, cautious, he didn’t eat his food at all.  Now he moves around speedily, and I swear he plays.  He plays with the seaweed, he bats around tiny peices of rock.  And that gives me a great deal of joy, to know as I’m sitting here worrying there is little Blogger in his bowl, playing, not giving an ounce of attention to my problems.

Humans need animals, I think, nearly as badly as they need other humans.

I love that silly little frog.