Monday, June 29, 2015

Actually rain run

On Saturday somehow I did not get woken up by Petra (who wakes up first, slamming into the room like a truck driver) until a little after 6. It wasn't until 6:30 that I remembered with a start that Alex had to leave at 7 to play soccer uptown. I jumped out of bed and started to get my running clothes on when Alex told me I didn't have enough time (he was probably right) and it wasn't going to get too hot so I could run later.

I felt slightly letdown, and knew my chances of running that day had plummeted. If I don't go running first thing, the hurdles just seem to start piling up as the day goes on. 

When Alex got home I had to run over to the garden to see what time I had signed up to help at our Ice Cream Social. I decided to drop some clothes off at Goodwill on the way and return a mini-soccer ball Petra had filched from the Toddler Room too. By that time I needed to get home to get Wally ready for a birthday party. Alex wouldn't know how to wrap the gift ("Where are the scissors? Where is the tape? Where is the wrapping paper?") plus Petra was napping so Alex couldn't bring Wally downstairs to meet the neighbors who had kindly offered to bring Wally to some remote location in Brooklyn so I had to linger around to do it. With kids these little nothing things can seem to take up hours until the whole day feels like it is getting away.

I was growing increasingly tense as the neighbors weren't here yet and I was slotted to be at the garden. Alex said I should go and that he would just ask them to come up to get Wally since Petra was still asleep but I felt that was overly demanding. So we argued a bit about it and I said I really needed to go and he said, "What do you want me to do, wake Petra up so they don't have to come up to the 10th floor?"  

So I waited...brought Wally down when they texted...dashed off late to the garden. The Ice Cream Social was cancelled because of the impending rain but I was carrying some library books to return by that point and when I returned them (ready to run?) I realized one I still needed for research so I needed to drop it off at home before I could do anything.

Back at home I fell into this sinkhole of straightening and cleaning sorting through piles of paper, reams of stuff Wally brought home from the end of first grade, most of which needs to go into the recycling bin or the house will be taken over by paper mache cats and giant red "Wild Things." It is easier to do this when Alex is home to entertain Petra and Wally is not home to say, "Don't throw that out!" so that was my rational of course for further postponing the run. And I was just losing momentum. It was dark and threatening outside and cozy in. And by 4 when you get up at 6 the day feels like it's getting toward evening. That sounds reasonable...doesn't it? Most people get up more like 8, so 4 would be 6, time to break out the corkscrews....

A little after 4 o'clock, I went down with Alex and Petra thinking I'd push myself finally to run (they were on the way to the store). But as soon as we got outside it started raining. 

"Should I go?" I asked Alex, hoping for permission not to.

"I wouldn't run in this." Alex said. Exactly what I wanted to hear. I turned around to duck back inside thinking I'd exercise to a video. That was my plan, but the minute I got in the building, I felt even more deflated than I had that morning, shoved halfway into my spandex pants. No, it would take too much mental energy to exercise inside. Petra & Alex would be back in a few minutes, and she would hang on me and bang on the keyboard and mess things up. The only way to get a real run in was to turn around and go back outside into the rain. To run with soaking wet heavy shoes, marine style. So that's what I decided to do, hesitating for a minute to text Alex. "Actually rain run."

And off I went over to the river. There were fewer people than usual out there, mostly groups running for shelter, but a couple bikers and runners who seemed happy enough to get drenched. Partway up the path I realized it was actually easier to run in that kind of rain (which was a good solid amount but certainly not a driving rain). It's quieter. You're less distracted by people, dogs, bikes, scooters. The water has a certain energy to it, not the crashing waves of the beach, but more like something pulsing underneath. For the first time in years I thought about the "training" I did as a child when my sister and I trained for a summer fun run. Out in the suburbs, even in our condominium complex, you feel more alone when you run than you do in Manhattan. In Manhattan whether you're inside or out, high noon or 3 in the morning, you're almost never alone. The never-aloneness changes how you think and feel about things. Ther'es something to me unbelievably exhausting about it. Obviously this is exacerbated by our 24-7 ADD digital age of hyperconnectivity. Even if you yourself are not checking your phone or email (and with kids when alone you kind of always have to check your phone, otherwise you get a call 6 hours late that Wally is in the nurse's office waiting for you), you still know so much is going on there in that parallel world, you know people might be trying to reach you there, things might be piling up that you were supposed to know about or answer. There is not that sense of aloneness that I used to love, rainy days up in my room, or out in the woods, or in high school, at the kitchen table, staring up from my homework and out the window in a daydream, listening to REM.

This past Saturday out by that gray pulsing river I saw a bunch of people coming in on their sailboats. I like to imagine when I pass those boats that I am not a mile from Times Square but instead out in some summer beach town. A few weeks earlier I'd run into some tourists in that spot early on Saturday morning. They asked me about a place to eat breakfast. I pointed them toward 10th Avenue and looked around to see if--other than Chelsea Piers--I was forgetting anything closer to where we were on the pier by the boats. 

"No, I think 10th ave is your best bet," I said, pointing the way along 23rd street. "There's nothing much out here," I said as they thanked me and took off. As I continued on, I repeated the last phrase to myself with a little bit of a thrill, "Nothing much out here." For good or bad, that is the one thing I feel like I can almost never say about my neighborhood, but it's something I at least fantasize about all the time, a lonely beach town, a few little sailboats coming in from the rain, nothing much else out here.

On this particular Saturday one boat caught my eye because of its Pride flag. I loved seeing the colors against the flat charcoal of the water and wished I could take a picture a good picture of it before they took the flag down. I have been infected with that instagram/FB/twitter habit -- this is only real if I capture it and post it. I tried snapping one with my little flip phone, but the feeling passed, and I moved on (easy to do when actually moving) and really thought about this amazing moment that we're in, this breakthrough for equality and what it meant and how this affirms what Obama said quoting--was it MLK?--in his acceptance speech in 2008: "The arc of history is long and bends toward justice."

It was only out there alone that I could really pause on and think about what this means. I had followed the news with interest, cheered, jumping up and down when I heard, "co-excited" with anyone I could. But it was only near the river by myself that I really felt the magnitude of this decision. 

I couldn't stay out too long. Just a half hour. I headed home, dreaming about a cup of tea and a shower, knowing a thousand little obstacles and have-to's would block my way. But I had already had this quiet moment out by the water to take things in. Writing, running, being separate from the world--those experiences are essential to me to process and integrate the kaleidoscopic rush of things. I was happy, heading home, to think I had not only continued in the rain I had deliberately headed into it. That felt tougher, in a ludicrously tiny way, more powerful.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Can you straddle the Mom Wars?

I was thinking back to one of the first posts I wrote here, back when I thought the blog would be more of a lighthearted take on modern motherhood, less of a personal...exploration? It was called Before They Were Moms, about my frustration with insipid playground chatter, my curiosity about how (besides as moms) these women on the playground defined themselves. I found it so hard to connect. I don't have that problem anymore, but I also don't have such insecurity about what I myself am doing there. 

One reader said my post the other day sounded discouraging and I actually felt the opposite. I feel totally liberated admitting to these limits, admitting to reality of being a hands-on (for lack of a better expression?) mom and also trying to do my own work. I think asking oneself to do the near impossible might be motivating for a time but there is a breaking point and then you're not really doing what you think you're doing. I’ve tried to stress all along here that I feel lucky enough to be able to make so many choices--some people don't have the options to work part-time or flexible hours or whatever it is that is running me so ragged. But, still, is it possible to really push oneself career wise – to “lean in” – and still lean out at the same time, by that I mean, still be the mom who packs lunches, who picks kids up from school or arranges for the sitter (calling, getting cash ready in an envelope, packing a snack, the bathing suit, the sunscreen the water), who helps a first grader assemble his costume for the arts festival, who buys birthday gifts for his friends, keep track of where the parties are, write thank-you cards or oversee their getting written, who makes sure there is enough milk in the fridge for the kids that drink a gallon a day each. Alex “helps,” he does more than probably many partners in similar situations. He cooks. A lot. He cleans up. He hangs with the kids. He accepts me dashing out the door the minute he gets home so I can go to class or work or run. He was 100% supportive of me going back at a crazy time (with a 1-year-old and 6-year-old) to get a degree that is worth nothing in our post-death-of-the-humanities age. Who else would accept all that additional stress for no real advancement, other than whatever personal gain I'm afforded by these classes and papers?

But there are just a million things on a daily basis that I do that Alex does not. A million things I have to keep track of and think about that he does not. Gifts for teachers at school and daycare. Setting up a school account. Buying tickets to the auction. I mean I don't know--one by one it all sounds small. But Alex can get ready for work just on his own, take a shower, with nobody banging down the door. I am the one who has the bus driver’s phone number and knows the names of the parents of kids in Wally’s class or Petra’s “class.” I am the one who keeps track of the half days and cuts out early to pick Wally up on them. I read the emails from the school that he deletes or "didn't see." I am the one who every few months changes out Petra’s clothes with new batches we’re lucky enough to get from neighbors, cleans the previous batch, brings them back over. I am the one who books tickets for vacation. Who drops stuff off daily at textile recycling and goodwill (he would do it, if I asked I suppose, but it would be during the time that I need to be out of the house working, not here with the kids). I do most of the grocery shopping. I know what size shoes the kids wear. Before I start my work I come home and clean up the dishes that assembled between cleanup last night and this morning even though the kids barely ate breakfast. Just a million things. If he is sick, he can stay home and be sick.

He’s a really good intern. If you give him specific tasks—exactly what to buy (organic, cage-free, vegetarian, antibiotic-free eggs) and where to buy it—he can hobble along, with encouragement and reminders. And it's I suppose my problem that I don't want the kids inside on sunny weekend days watching soccer so I often take them out even when I need to work and he says to leave them home. And then when he hauls them off to the playground it is my choice to pack them up with water & sunscreen & bathing suits & snacks. He would have to scrounge around or buy these things or bounce right back otherwise and I know he'd be frustrated. Is it enabling then, to continue to assist/control to this degree? And I suppose--money aside [if it can legitimately be set there]--there is the option of more help, which is what people who lean in must have, right? Either hired help, or one parent who has basically given up—at least temporarily—any personal career advancement.

So then I ask myself if I should continue pushing myself, because I really don't know if it's possible to push oneself career-wise, without turning into a nights and weekend mom like I was in the early part of Wally's life. Can I do that and still be the mom I want to be, the mom to young children I will look back on happily once my children like Jeanette’s are cartwheeling through Europe and scaling mountains, or even a few years when like my sister’s they walk ahead of me on the sidewalk? 

There is some other quality to it, to the every dayness of a certain kind of SAHM. There is something qualitatively different to being around and I suppose I can't even say that "with authority" because I've never been 100% dedicated to kid-raising the way other moms are. So I guess I will say I sense there is some unique possibility of parenthood contained there, in being the one who is reliably there, the one standing at the half day pick ups holding the cheese sandwich, remembering the bandaids, taking them for ice cream spontaneously and pulling out a journal to write down some amazing thing they said, pointing out a ladybug or butterfly, just as an every day thing, not as a special, "quality time together" on the weekend thing. The kind of every day parent so many of us grew up with. There is a comfort to that. It seems wrong to say that a mom who works--full time or part time--is the same kind of mom, devoted to the same degree in the same way--as the one who does nothing but care for the children and keep the house heaving along.

So then I turn into telling myself of course you can't have everything. You can't devote that level of energy to the kids and get somewhere professionally and go to grad school and get in shape. You choose. Does it come down to the fact that you can't really straddle the mom wars? That leaning in necessarily means missing out?  
It's strange that David Brooks' commencement speech at Dartmouth this year feels relevant. He writes:

"Your fulfillment in life will come by how well you end your freedom. By the time you hit your 30s, you will realize that your primary mission in life is to be really good at making commitments.

Making commitments sounds intimidating, but it’s not. Making a commitment simply means falling in love with something, and then building a structure of behavior around it that will carry you through when your love falters."

It does feel liberating and great to make a commitment and even to know that one (taking care of kids) will likely come at the price of the other (advancing my own "career"). I just feel there is a widespread resistance to admitting to that cost. Maybe it's the supermom myth or the hope that women can have it all and the fact that it feels anti-feminist to say that's not true.  

Does it matter how much actual time you spend with your children (in other words, is the quality over quantity thing just a fantasy)? Okay, so this article is nearly three months old. My sister sent it to me when it came out, but I read it today. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Little Engines

It's been five years that I've written sometimes more, often less, on this blog I've called Last American Childhood, finally accepting in that time the end of my own and agreeing to take on the role that will allow me to protect that magical time as best as I can for my children. In the same five-year interval I've been working while also taking care of these young children, often by necessity simultaneously -- literally writing drafts of jello shot recipes or dog exercises or nonprofit surveys or academic papers with crayon on construction paper inside smiley faces and around the edges of trees. 

It was only yesterday jogging on the river that I realized -- I can't do it. I can't continue to work and take care of my kids as much as I do -- taking them to school, Petra home two days a week, every afternoon getting Wally from the bus & hanging with them in the afternoons, most of the weekend, serving as the on-call parent for sick days, half days, vacation days, field trips, class celebrations -- & also work as much as I need to to really get somewhere. I don't know why it has taken me so long to realize this. But still I am enjoying the days and enjoying the noise and the quiet and lying in the grass looking at bugs and committing myself to words on paper whether or not they ever get out.

I thought I could...but I can't.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Venting - pointless

I've been so frustrated by Petra's inability to fall or stay asleep lately. When we can't count on her to go down and stay down for at least a few hours in the evening, the whole precarious household dynamic falls apart. I can't work. Alex can't watch his game. Neither one of us manages to clean up very well or attend to Wally very well or just remember anything at all. It's just like this whole struggle and eventually someone gives up and goes to bed with her and it feels like whatever safety valve a few hours of relative not-chaos provides is just missing. Permission slips don't get signed. Food gets left out and spoils. Phones go missing.

Over an hour and a half now. Much more I wanted to say...but so hard to even think with this screaming. 

I just looked at a DRAFT post from last September. I had been writing about a wildflower project my sister had to do in the summer before I think 10th grade and of course she left it until like the day before school started and it sent a full-blown panic through our house. Amazing how those projects blow up & seem so overwhelming. I don't know why I was thinking about that on the day before Wally started first grade (during which time I've taken most of his homework and slipped it into the recycling bin) but anyway here we are with just over a week left to go. 

Man it was a hard year and it was a little too much. I was the hurried (no longer) child this time but things here on the nights Petra mostly slept were calm. The contractors tearing through the walls of this building as part of a major 4-year multi-million dollar project left a smiley face on the wall for the kids. The construction sends us out into the streets at dawn. By 7:15 in the morning lately I am at the playgrounds with Petra.