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Archive for the ‘On Being Mama’ Category

Turns out, I miss this place. I went on for many months quite happily without the computer. Working on my farm projects. Summer was banner this year, and my plate was manically full. But somewhere around July, I started to itch for writing. A place and a way to express my thoughts, to communicate all the stuff that crowds my head. Ears who care to listen.

Now, don’t go creaming yer panties, I’m not coming back here on a regular basis. But, maybe just a quickie now and then, in the laundry room.

Besides, I have some important addendums to the inherent subject matter of Apron Stringz. My life as a ‘mama who likes to get shit done’ continues to evolve, and it seems wrong to leave off when new discoveries are being made.

Not that I have come to any conclusions. As usual the farther I get into it, the more confusled I become. Certainly nothing has become clear to me, in my absence from blogging. I have not come back to share brilliant epiphanies. But that’s why you love me right? For laying bare the absolute bewilderment of life and loving?

I do have one particular thing to say, the thing that has made me come back, an admission.

For the record– it didn’t work.

This whole ‘yielding to motherhood and the inglorious work of housewifery’ thing, it didn’t work. I mean, I guess it worked for a while, gave me some peace when I needed it most. Allowed me to survive a period of intensity that otherwise might have destroyed me. I still recommend it, wholeheartedly. If you can manage it, submitting to the humble task of motherhood is a strangely liberating experience.

I just want to make sure you understand the further evolution of that story. Although I cultivated it successfully for a few years, as soon as the life-or-death necessity for submission had worn off, I abandoned it like a leaky rubber boot. I went straight back to my old ways– taking on way too much for someone with small children, trying to do it all, wanting it all with an almost debilitating lust, then beating myself up for failing on all accounts.

Part of that is just summer in Alaska. It all happens so fast. It’s winter and winter and winter, and then all of a sudden– BAM. It’s summer and it’s going to be over before you can finish even half the projects on your list, so hurry the fuck up!

But I can’t just blame summer. There’s more to the story.

Six years ago now, we had our first baby. I slowly and painfully began to set aside my own projects and passions for the all-encompassing work of motherhood. Two years into it, we moved to New Orleans, My Man went to law school, and we had our second baby. Enter the Submission Phase, blah, blah, blah. I gave up on accomplishing anything of consequence, outside of raising up two beautiful new souls. I didn’t submit easily, in fact it was emotionally akin to amputating both legs. But I did it– I put my own, separate, non-mama path on hold for a few years. I relegated my passions and what I consider my real work to ‘charming hobby’ status.

Then My Man finished school. Moving back to Alaska was something of an anti-climax because even though I was back in my own home turf, surrounded by my previous years’ work on our little property, My Man was studying harder than ever for the Bar. Time and energy were still too tight for me to take back up those passions in any meaningful capacity. So, I squelched them back down and screwed the lid on once again.

Our little backyard homestead lay in a state of dormancy, fertile soil covered in a dense blanket of weeds. It would have to wait.

My mind lay similarly neglected. After years of fighting for each little scrap, I had acquired a resident apathy. I could hardly remember what I might care to do with myself, should I ever have time to do anything in. As someone who had been vehemently motivated to do cool stuff, before I had kids, the apathy was perhaps the most disturbing thing of all.

But, here we were– back home in my chosen context, with all the things I claimed to care about around me. And that is when my greatest fear of all surfaced. What if I had just changed? What if I didn’t care about homesteading and wilderness and harvesting anymore? What then? What would I care about if not that?

This is the identity crisis which I alluded to in my few posts last summer, but never had the guts to write about. I was terrified. I had built my entire life around this homesteader dream, the possibility of it’s loss was haunting.

Our girl started kindergarten that fall. Suddenly I had just one kid again, for half of every day. The desperation of mothering two littles began to ease. I had finally settled back into Alaska. My Man passed the Bar, and started working. At long last, the 3YO began to sleep through the night and into the morning, allowing me a good night’s sleep and an hour or two of quiet solitude at the beginning of each day. I took a deep, wonderful breath.

My mind opened tentatively into that extra space, like a hermit crab poking out of it’s shell. Is it safe? Is there really room for me again?

It was at that moment in time, serendipitously, that I discovered permaculture. I was ripe and ready, it was exactly what I needed. Knowledge! Learning! Permaculture was the next step to everything I had done before I had kids– an advanced course in gardening and homesteading. I was consumed, like a hot, teenage crush. It was so exciting to be excited again. Even now, when I hear the intro song to Thomas the Train (which allowed me many an hour to sit around learning) I feel a wave of giddy joy.

And that is when I realized that I had not changed at all. I had not lost my love for all things which grow from the soil, and a life which relates to wild nature. Rather, my lust for learning had just been squashed by too many loads of laundry, I had had too many attempts to try something new crushed into the ground by a screaming toddler. I had given up.

I had tried for graceful submission, but in the end had settled into apathetic resignation. Not towards my life as a whole, but certainly towards my personal passions and ambitions.

I still believe that graceful submission would be a beautiful thing. I did hit it for small moments, and they were good and sweet. I don’t begrudge the resignation either, it is acceptable to me on a short term basis. It served me well when I needed it.

I was so thrilled to find my own spark still alive, so relieved that it was (conveniently) still flaring in the same general direction, that I hardly cared whether it had been submission or resignation or what. I flung my painstakingly acquired good mom habits out the window and set right into ignoring my kids in the name of backyard homesteading.

I weeded out three years’ worth of creeping buttercups and planted all my old garden beds. I started teaching classes, something I had always wanted to, in bread making, gardening and wild plants. I butchered, packaged and froze two black bears given me by a local guide. I started making herbal medicine. I picked gallons of wild blueberries. But, most significantly, before summer had even begun, I ordered fifty chicks and ducklings thereby turning my nice little gardens into a full fledged small farm.

I ordered the birds while there was still snow on the ground. I had spent the winter drawing up a totally awesome permaculture design for our property, and had convinced myself on paper that I could build an addition to my coop which would quadruple it’s size, before the chicks grew out of their brooder.

I had forgotten that I was in fact still a mama! You can throw the ole’ submission idea out the window, but the kids don’t seem to notice. Well, I’m sure they noticed something. Like the fact that I had stopped taking them to kid activities around town, stopped doing crafts with them, stopped reading stories in the middle of the day, and started a hell of a lot more yelling.

It wasn’t all bad. There were some absolutely amazing days, the kind of days I imagined motherhood would be– working outside building the coop, or digging in the garden; a little pack of kids ranging around between our yard and our neighbors, happily playing in the sunshine with sticks. Brilliant days, which I did have the good sense to stop and appreciate, recognizing these moments as the best of the best, what I had always hoped my life would be like.

I don’t regret my regression back into project-land. Mamas busy with projects are a good thing. But there’s busy and then there’s too busy. I do regret ordering fifty birds. What the fuck was I thinking? I could have simply doubled my flock, like a normal person, just dabbled in raising meat birds; but no, I needed to quintuple my flock so that I could put a year’s worth of birds in the freezer, and still have several different laying breeds left to trial.

The stress of all those animals under my care, inadequately housed (barely better off than factory farmed birds for a while there) gave me actual belly cramps during the month of June. I just couldn’t build fast enough. It seemed like I managed to nail up about two boards/day.

At any rate, here I am now, at the end of it. A nice big pack of roasters in my freezer, and a beautiful flock of laying hens and ducks. I am learning new things, evolving my homesteading skills, moving forward on my path again.

Occasionally I miss those days when I just let taking the kids on an outing, doing laundry and making dinner be enough. I am still often jealous of the mamas who can sustain that kind of devotion. But I am not that mama. For me, submission was a temporary helpmate.

And for you other mamas out there who used to like to get shit done, who now feel your own passions numbed by motherhood, understand that you can submit for a few years and still resurface intact at the end of it. It might take some time to wake your mind and passions back up, but don’t be frightened by a little apathy. When the time comes, your spark will reignite.

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Despite my absence here for the last month and a half, I have not been master goddess of my domestic realm. I am always surprised when I take a break from blogging, I mean you’d think that the extra 1-2 hours per day would get me something. And of course it does, it gets me a slower pace of life, a calm that I do appreciate when I can manage to acknowledge it. But it does not get me a cleaner house or happier children. At this very moment (and most others) the kitchen is a mess, the table is stacked with four loads of clean laundry waiting to be put away, the floors are disgusting, and I have no idea what I’m cooking for dinner. I feel that depthless falling feeling lately. The list, by which I mean The List, is miles long and filled with projects like “replace linoleum in the kitchen,” “put up the year’s worth of salmon,” “rebuild collapsed woodshed roof,” and subsequently “cut and stack five cords of firewood for the winter.”

And I can’t even get the fucking laundry put away.

The disappointment of times like this always starts me to grasping for a cure, and lately my obsession has been the Waldorf concept of Rhythm. The idea is that a flexible but regular schedule is essential for children; that knowing, generally, how their days will unfold gives them a sense of peace and stability.

Duh.

One of the things I hate about parenting dogmas is how impervious they are to differences in personality. Although I think a predictable schedule is generally agreed to be good for kids, I suspect there are kids who will never adapt to a schedule and furthermore don’t need to, as well as kids who’s lives could be turned around by a strong rhythm. Those are the kids who thrive on Waldorf, and “prove” the success of the ideology.

What I am realizing lately is that I was one of those kids, who’s need for a predictable, peaceful and quiet daily routine was never satisfied as a child. And as happens in a developing brain when a need is unmet, I am consequently malformed.

I have always had a near obsession with routine and yet an inability to actually execute it to any satisfying degree. I need it because I didn’t get it as a child, but I don’t know how to do it, because I didn’t get it as a child. My journals are always studded with multiple attempts to corral the chaos of my days. Literally,

“Summer Schedule
6:00 wake up, coffee
7:00 breakfast
7:30 walk
9:00 outside chores”
etc, etc.

I write it all out, earnestly believing every time that the mere act of writing will create the calm rhythm and self disciplined schedule I crave. Later I am convinced that it hasn’t worked because I just haven’t gotten it right, haven’t divined the Perfect Schedule. Inviting yet another attempt.

That’s me– forever believing that there is a formula for perfection. Not universal, but personal to me. If only I could figure it out.

Having kids of my own I have only stepped up this madness. Desperate for a handle on life, I feel sure that I am just missing something. If I could just get the kids to eat right, they wouldn’t have these stubborn screaming fits. If I could just get the house clean and stay on top of it, we would all feel so much more calm and relaxed. If the 2yo would just consistently sleep enough at night. If I got the kids enough exercise and peer play every day. If… If….

And then the kingpin– If only I could get us on a schedule, then I would (magically) have time to fit all this in to every single day.

Then, then! Life would be all soft watercolors and silk scarves. Hallelujah.

Looking around online for Waldorf rhythm is excessively discouraging. The blogshine that I always rail against is rampant in the Waldorf crowd. One that I read this morning went on for an entire post about their morning ritual of waking softly, lighting candles and singing morning songs and how sweet and perfect it all was. Well, perfect pink wool felting mothers of the world, damn you if you’re lying, and damn you more if you’re not.

I started this post weeks ago, in the midst of an obsession. Now as I come back to finish what seems worth finishing, I am trying to divine the lesson. Did I learn something? I do in fact feel like in the last few weeks I created some kind of order in my universe– the house is clean, the laundry is caught up, the kids are happy. But as usual, in retrospect, I find myself wondering if I created that order and peace, or if it created itself.

Do I follow a pattern of sinking to the bottom and then pulling myself up by the bootstraps? Or does life follow a pattern of chaos and hard times, which lead inevitably to a relative peace and better times? Or is it (more likely) both? Do we feed off of each other, me and life, and oh– don’t forget the kids, in their own two separate cycles.

Waldorf appeals to my depressed self because it is based on the premise that if you do everything “right” (and they’ll tell you how) your life and your children will be sweet and quiet. It taps directly into my innate compulsion to believe that there is a Perfect Way, I just have to figure out what it is. It feeds heavily on my propensity for mama-guilt, because if my life is not so perfectly sweet and quiet, it is my own fault. I have failed myself and my family.

Like any religion, it takes a human being in their weakened state of sad, disappointed confusion, and props them up on the idea that there is a prescribed way out. Just follow the master plan, and it will all be taken care of. The idea that there is in fact an underlying order, a secret to life, is so incredibly seductive to us. We want so desperately to believe, to be Believers.

For whatever cosmic reason, me and the kids were at a real low. I was desperate, I was vulnerable. I delved into the ‘rhythm as panacea’ concept, even started doing a Waldorf circle time with the kids every afternoon. I summoned my will and attempted to implement a stronger routine than what we already had. I checked out Over the Rainbow Bridge from the library. I berated myself appropriately over their movie watching, the overflow of plastic toys and my own yelling mad self. (This last one works wonders– beat yourself up about being a mean mom. Just see how sweet it makes you. Wow. It was from this place of yelling at myself for yelling at the kids that I told them I wanted to chain them up so I could just please fucking carry the fucking groceries the two blocks up the fucking hill to our house.)

The problem, for me at least, is that feeding the belief in achievable order interferes with the work I really need to be doing. Accepting the chaos.

Submitting.

Shit, there it is again. Not submitting to motherhood this time. But submitting to life. The universe. Everything. The greater-than-me. The things I can never know, and never understand. The mystery. Submitting to the fact that I am not ruler of this world, or even my world. There is no plan so perfect that it will tame my wild children. Thank god! My life is not reducible to a calm, clean, quiet procession of handcrafts. It is an uproarious mess of bewilderment and kitchen projects. My kids are LOUD because they are full of piss and vinegar, they run around the house breaking shit because they are full of nearly explosive curiosity for how the world works.

We are movers and shakers, a whole fam damily of them. Our life together is bound to be complex.

I’m not altogether done with the rhythm concept, or Waldorf in general. Of course, just because they have not created The Master Plan doesn’t mean there isn’t some valuable takeaway. Just because a solid rhythm would not singlehandedly create peace on earth, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t help create a bit more peace in our own household. Or at the very least, in my own brain.

As usual, I walk a weird line between wholesome organic crafty mama and ranting punk bitch, and it’s sometimes hard to know quite where to set my bags down. I guess my real work in this life is to just be without need to label, to search without need to find, to try without need to master, to take what comes as it comes. Chaos, order, chaos.

That’s not too much to ask, right?

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***While I am packing up our house like a woman possessed, getting our family ready to move across the continent, several generous readers have volunteered to keep you musing. This first guest post is written by Jasmine Johnson-Kennedy. Jasmine in an Alaskan off-grid homesteader (ironically, I do not know her from Alaska but solely from this virtual space). She also writes at her own blog, Bunchberry Farms.***

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You may think I’m crazy when I say this, but its true.  I have been actively talking myself out of having children for a decade.  How old am I, you ask?  I’m twenty six.

Why have I been dissuading myself from ushering new souls into the world for so long?  Because I want them SO DAMN BAD.

I actually give my younger self a lot of kudos for being so responsible.  As a highschooler, while I personally wasn’t sexually active until late in highschool, I had pro-condom bumperstickers on the back of my truck and in my bedroom.  I talked my friends through the process of getting on birth control.  I was decided that if I should ever need to, I would get an abortion rather than become a teenage mom.  And all the while I desperately desired kids.  I would fight the undertow of the longing.  I would find myself insanely jealous of the young single struggling under-advantaged moms that I worked with at my minimum wage part time waitressing gigs.  And periodically I would have to sit down with myself and have a good long chat about what the reality of kids would mean, about how having an underage mom wouldn’t be doing them any favors, and about how I wanted to be able to choose them at a time their nurturance would be my primary endeavor.

I played gypsy for a year, and then I went to college.  And for five years I indulged in academia and theatre.  I knew I didn’t have the time or energy for kids.  I knew that the time would come for being a mom, that that time was not the (then) present.  But I longed.  Oh, how I longed.  And I dreamed.  Oh, how I dreamed.  The dream of the homestead and the dream of the motherhood came to rival each other in depth and intensity.  They became entwined to the point of identity.  My mantra-goal became “Get the land” because once I had the land, the homestead and the kids could and would come.  I plotted and planned and despaired and hoped and leveraged will power and luck and fate and love to get the homestead.  Meanwhile I would read the parenting magazines at the Laundromat, hide “Fit Pregnancy” (the prenatal yoga issues) and “Natural Parenting” magazines in the wait-station at the restaurant, read the latest “Mothering Magazine” and “Midwifery Today” every time I visited my mom.  I would hide in the magazine section at the grocery store and read “Good Housekeeping” and “Real Simple,” skimming past article with potential relevance to where I was at, and instead focusing on the ones that talked about homework and kids organizational strategies, about family dinner plans and how to pack a school lunch.  I rarely babysat because I was always in rehearsal or on stage or waitressing.  I was engaging in the act of living the life-stage I was in while desperately and nearly obsessively longing for and planning the future.  I have always been the queen of ten year plans.  I am not entirely sure it is the healthiest way to live, expending so much energy and thought and time on a future that you are at the same time ensuring is distant from where you are.

Sometime in college I met my Darlin’ Man.  And as soon as we met, certainly as soon as we became serious, I realized that there was no way I could or would ever get the abortion I had always planned on if we accidentally conceived.  This realization scared the shit out me.  I mean, I thrive on planning the future.  The reality of children was always, always something that I knew I would invite into my life when the time was right.  I wished for them NOW, but I knew this.  When I was maybe 3, maybe 4 years old my little sister was a baby.  I have this vivid memory of sitting in my kid-sized rocking chair (the one that is in the attic space at my mother’s house waiting for the next generation along with boxes and boxes of kids books and toys that I’ve been saving all of my life), in the middle of the afternoon, and singing lullabies to my doll.  For hours.  We had this tape of lullabies, English on one side, French on the other – Lullaby Bersuese – and I distinctly remember one specific afternoon repeating and re-listening to the French side at least two if not three times.  Singing along and rocking my doll straight through from afternoon to dusk.  I wanted to memorize it so that when I was a mom I could sing it to my kids without the tape.  Ever since then, I have known, bone deep, that motherhood was something that belonged in my life, that it was something I would choose for myself.  Accordingly, it became the end-goal of every 10 year plan I ever made.  It was there and real and desperately wanted, but was always placed a decade or so away.  Placed out there in the future with a plan in place to ensure it stayed there.  So when I met my Darlin’ Man and realized that if we conceived I would keep the baby, it scared the shit out of me.  It took the concept of motherhood out this plane of planned activity at the perfect time – a place I had put it, and kept it, so that I would not be prematurely tempted – and (re)created it as a  thing that could happen by chance, something that could happen to me and I would do nothing to stop it.  I mean, no kind of birth control is fail-proof right?  And if the idea is that you manifest in your life that which you focus on, kids are an immanent accidental possibility, right?  And that’s scary stuff.  But even while recognizing the absolute havoc that untimed and unplanned kids would have on my life, on our lives, even while rebelling against the mere concept of the active choice being taken away from me – in my deepest self of selves I rejoiced.  I rejoiced because suddenly, miraculously, my most deeply held desire was a possibility.  Because even a 1 in 10,000 chance is a possibility, right?  And if I hit that one in ten thousand jackpot, well,  I could hardly blame myself for accidentally becoming pregnant with my beloved’s child, right?   It wouldn’t be an ill-considered decision, but fate.

And I rejoiced because I knew that the choice of pregnancy and motherhood was really and truly finally within my grasp.  And that scared the shit out of me.  Because if it was something that I finally could choose for myself, why was I not?   If facing the reality of eminence of the mere possibility of kids brought me such joy and relief, why was I avoiding it?  What was I doing with myself?  If I was defining fulfillment as motherhood, and I was denying myself motherhood, then what sort of messed up mind game was I playing with myself?

So I did two things, I sat down with myself and gave myself the permission to savor this pre-kid life for what it is.  There are many things I love about it that I know I will nostalgically savour when my proverbial style is cramped by the minute to minute reality of littles. This life I’m living now is a step along the way but not merely a means to an end.  (Or so I tell myself when I’m not assuring myself that AS SOON as we get enough student loans paid off, I can then get pregnant.  If that’s not a means to an end, I don’t know what is.)    And I asked myself what motherhood really meant to me.  I found that while the essence of motherhood in my soul stands alone and can be applied to or fit within any life scenario I can imagine, my VISION of my future motherhood was pretty specific.  Once, in the early and turbulent portion of our relationship, my Darlin’Man asked me if I knew what my purpose in life was.  I don’t remember the words I chose – I think nurture was one.  But I remember being very careful of what words I used because I knew the answer as clear as day, and I knew that English lacked a single word for the amalgam of creation and nurturing and tending and supporting and healing and reverence that gardening and mothering and animal husbandry and making art and feeding people and giving them medicine and tending their wounds all have in common.  There is a common element, and it is profound and resides in my soul, but I don’t know that there is a word for it.  I thought about all of this and I realized that my vision of my own experience of motherhood was all entwined in my vision of homesteading.  Raising kids and goats and gardens was all one life action for me.  Which meant I better get the set up in place if I wanted to realize that vision.

So I shifted my future focus onto the homestead (and by this I mean I took all of that near-obsessive planning and applied it to small scale agriculture).  I got married.  My mom moved up here in anticipation of being grandma in the not too distant future.  Last summer we bought the homestead.  It needs a lot of work in creating it as a productive home scale agricultural venture.  It craves digging and building and fencing and lots of compost.  But every time I think about a fence line, or the placement of a coop, I think in terms of little hands on latches, little feet in the grass, buoyant laughter echoing, trees for solace of little hearts.  As I think about where the fruit trees and the barn ought to go in relation to a future barn, and maintaining the direct sun on the solar panels, I’m also thinking of swings and climbing trees.

I’m now on the two year plan for getting pregnant and every time I sit with myself and examine my prospective reality of motherhood, it still scares the shit out of me.  In a deep and challenging way, a way that has within it the distillation of the visions of bliss and golden glowing mama-ness.  A way that encapsulates the dreams and the bone deep blood deep voice that knows about children belonging in my life.  A way that is also aware (as aware as one can be without the experience) of the work and the drudgery and the self abnegation and the frustration.  The responsibility and the giving.

And if the prospective reality scares the shit out of me and I still want it with the intensity of a decade’s longing melting into tender humbleness; that must mean I’m getting closer and closer to actually being ready, right?  Are you ever ready?  Probably not.

And the closer my own motherhood draws, the more I find myself open to following the lead of this land, our (future) kids, this life we’re choosing.  The ten year plan has opened to allow me to glimpse possible vistas of twenty and fifty years down the road – it is less rigid and encompasses much more possibility for change.  Which means I might just make it though, right?

                              –Jasmine Johnson-Kennedy, Bunchberry Farms

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My Girl has always been fairly balanced, gender-wise. If I hadn’t had a second baby– a very boy boy whose first words were, respectively, ‘ball’ and ‘truck’– I would have smugly thought that kids just respond to the gender influences around them. My Girl liked fancy dresses and dolls, but no more than anything else. Her pretend play usually centered around some kind of animal family– walruses on an ice flow, baby birds hatching out of their egg. From the comfort of my own situation, I advised my dear friend with a princess-obsessed daughter to just roll with it, allow her daughter to experiment. So long as her real life was filled with strong female role models, she’d be fine in the end. I myself was a very girly little girl. I adored dresses with frills, lace, puffy sleeves and played with B*rbies for years, and look how I turned out. I laughed at my friend for hiding certain dolls and cutting the princess insignia off of gifted play dresses. Her daughter would be fine, she just needed to relax! I felt surprisingly at ease about the whole thing.

Until recently.

There was no pivotal moment, just a steady influx of pink, a steady movement toward all things ‘pretty.’ Now I am suffering the torture of feminists all over our angsty modern world. My daughter wants to be a princess.

There was a scene at the drugstore recently. I don’t often go there, but I needed to get cockroach poison (as the New Orleans summer has heated up, our kitchen has gotten entirely out of hand.) I decided to pre-promise the kids doughnuts, hoping it would make the experience smoother. When we walked in, and all the product hit our eyes at once, My Girl looked up at me and said, “Mama? Can I get something pretty?”

I explained that we only had so much money, but if she wanted to she could get a small something instead of a doughnut. Assuming there would be no contest, assuming doughnuts rule. “Okay!” She said brightly, and started browsing the pretty things. There followed a torturously long episode of me chasing the boy through the aisles and My Girl picking first one thing then another that were too expensive. My eyes seized on a big display of $1 finger nail polish. For some reason I have never had a problem with her using the stuff, it seems so entirely childish to me that I can’t believe grown women wear it without irony. I pointed to the display and suggested that she could get a bottle of sparkly pink fingernail polish.

I hadn’t thought to notice the other item on display.

“Mama! Can I get that stuff that makes your lips a color?” She asked breathlessly.

Oh my god. Lipstick? How did she even know what it was?

She had already had fingernail polish and a little box of eyeshadow that I got out of a give-away box which she applied like face paint. Why did I balk at lipstick? She’s just a little kid playing Fancy Lady, what’s the big deal?

I realized later that even though she probably has only ever seen her grandma apply the stuff, I associate lipstick with looking like a prostitute. I cannot separate lipstick from sex appeal in my mind, and I was suddenly downright terrified that already, at age four, my daughter felt the desire/expectation to look sexy.

So, I told her no. What else could I do? I felt like I had to fight for her life, for the preservation of her childhood.

But My Girl recognizes a fight from ten yards off, and she set in with her own army. She started to cry and wail in almost 2yo fit fashion, except much sadder. In fact, she was tragic. All attempts to distract her towards any other kind of ‘pretty’ item were useless. She said she wanted something she didn’t have already. It sounds silly now, just a little girl trying to get what she wanted. But my heart hurt for her. My head hurt too, I just wanted to get the hell out of there, but regardless any lipstick morality I don’t give in to crying fits. I was trapped.

I ended up telling her that because you put lipstick on your lips, you end up eating a little of it and that the kind at that store wasn’t safe for kids. This was in fact a small part of my hesitation. I could see no entrance point for a conversation about my real fear. As we left the store, finally, some silly unwanted barrets in hand, I had the sinking feeling that I had just made the desire for lipstick an indelible part of her emotional psyche.

Talking this through later with My Man, I came to terms with my over active fear of lipstick. Although I do believe it is undeniable that men find lipstick attractive because it makes the lips look wet and ready, the fact is that it is so normal to wear lipstick in our culture that it has become almost completely dissociated from the underlying sex appeal. In fact, when My Man and I tried to think of who even wears lipstick, the main image was of old ladies with absurdly pink lips and perpetually surprised eyebrows.

The next week, during a trip to Whole Foods, I detoured down the rarely attended cosmetics aisle and picked up a tube of all-natural mineral pigment lipstick. “Look!” I said, handing it to My Girl, “They have lipstick here that’s okay for kids!” I hoped that remembering this all on my own, to her surprise, would somehow redeem me.

Two days later, she lost that $6 tube of all natural red lipstick at a restaurant. She was only vaguely disappointed.

This lipstick event has certainly defined a shift for me, and doubtlessly for her as well. But the overall situation is much bigger. She talks about princesses more and more often, plays princess, picks out insufferable princess books at the library (Disn*y Princess Ballerina? Are you fucking kidding me? That was when I stooped to hiding things under the couch).

Although she has definitely begun to pick up on the subtle cultural determinations of what is and is not ‘pretty,’ and once told me she thought her voice wasn’t pretty enough (be strong, my heart), I have to remember that her definitions are still relatively open. As far as she understands it, ‘princess’ means dressed in a fancy dress. It is purely aesthetic, it is in not otherwise limiting in any way. There is no reason in her mind that a pretty princess cannot slay a dragon with her bare hands, and so far I can still get away with little tricks like suggesting that one princess save the other princess before both attending a celebratory party. There is no subversion like assimilation, right?

I know this issue is just opening for us, and honestly I feel completely terrified. On one hand, I believe all the standard feminist lines about girls being taught to be weak, about the devastations of impossible body image and over-sexualization. On the other hand, I feel like much too much is made of it. As my friend’s husband said once after we’d had a good long bitch session about it, “Why wouldn’t she like princesses? You talk about them all the time. They must be the most interesting things around.” I know that restricting something is the best way to increase it’s appeal. As the mama of a red-headed firecracker, I know that starting a fight, on any level, is always a bad idea. Even more importantly, I know we need to step back and let our girls discover the world, on their own terms, and respect who they choose to be in it. Kids are constantly experimenting. The world outside exerts plenty of influence on them, but I believe nothing will ever strike as deep as the home and family they come from.

Obviously I’m going to have to get over my fear that she can’t handle it. How better to communicate to My Girl that I have faith in her as a strong and powerful growing woman than to believe that she will find her way through the princess maze?

Now that I think about it, she is one hell of a force of nature. I wonder where she gets that from?

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On Cussing

I got a comment the other day on that Out the Other End post saying, “You know, sometimes I don’t care for your blog because I try not to curse, and reading salty language makes me start using it. But posts like this remind me why I keep reading. I am farther along the motherhood path than you are, and can relate to every word of what you have written– curse words especially.”

I am not at all offended by this, I feel it’s a tactful statement of a personal preference. In fact, I am flattered that my writing has overshadowed the gap in style and that the commenter has persevered with this blog.

But, it did remind me that we are due for an explanation in the cussing department.

I love swearing. I have always cursed like a shore-bound sailor, and I don’t see any good reason that mothering should stop me. In fact I see every reason to keep at it– mothering is definitely the most frustrating, challenging, infuriating job I have ever done; creating daily, dire occasions for the work fuck. Swearing is a way for me to blow off dangerous steam, with minimal damage. Like beating up a pillow. It’s a safety valve.

I have tried to ease up on swearing in front of my kids, and have only twice slipped up and sworn at them (a line I am not proud to cross). It has been mirrored back at me, but surprisingly little. Our 4yo occasionally says damn, as in “Where is that damn crayon?” and one time she said, when I suggested she roll up a tangled rope, that it was “all fucked up.” Otherwise, although I have never explained it to her, she seems to miraculously understand that those second level cuss words are for grownups.

On this blog, I swear for punctuation and for fun, as well as for release. I have always been well aware that by using those second level words, I am cutting out a large swath of my potential audience. Some folks, like the commenter above, could probably excuse or even appreciate a few well placed curse words, but take offense at my extremely liberal usage, wondering (I imagine) if it’s really necessary to use the F word in a biscuit recipe for example.

On one hand you could say, don’t I want my “message” to reach the largest possible number? Why cut anyone out? Is it worth losing readers over a few words I could mostly do without? I would argue that the internet is a big ole place and there is no shortage of squeaky clean mom blogs out there, with very good content, that appeal to wider audiences. I myself want to carve out a small space where freaks like me, who do not see the irony in wholesome loving mothers cussing up a blue streak, can gather and feel less freakish.

Isn’t that what the internet is for? Gathering disparate folk together in cyber space, an infinite number of venues for an infinite number of freaks, proving to ourselves in a backwards way that we are not so motherfucking alone?

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The 95%

Hey there friends,

I didn’t mean to alarm anyone. I’m doing fine, really. My thing on this blog has been to really bust out the shit that everyone feels and no one says. I give it to you straight. But since we are not together in real life, you don’t get to see the whole picture, just whatever extreme words I offer up on a given day.

Those words were all true, but only one piece of a big whole. You know how the acute emotionality of pms can make true things unbearable, wash away the good stuff and leave you just wallowing? The pain is real– the depression, disappointment, disillusionment is every bit true– but the enormity of it is false. That’s how it goes in the low times for me, be they hormonal or not. My heart takes out the little slivers that have been rubbing wrong in my otherwise very satisfactory life, and climbs into that raw hole, surrounded complete. The 95% goodness of life falls away and the 5% misery engulfs.

When I wrote that last post, I was actually already moving up, out of my hole. I can’t write from down in there in fact. I’ve tried a few times, it’s shit. But I needed to process it before it receeded, and also… I want to give you all the pieces of this weird gig, including the times I hate the job and doubt myself. I feel like that is an essential part of championing motherhood and housewifery– being honest about the whole goddamn thing. Ugly bits and all. If only we all knew how much we all struggle with life! Then maybe we wouldn’t have this ridiculous expectation for bliss and perfection that is really in fact the root of my particular turmoil. Nobody needs help to get through the happy times.

So, yes. I struggle. I get through. I keep on. As one commenter said about her own experience of motherhood, many years past, “I fell down got up fell down got up fell down got up and they were raised.” Amen to that sister.

I do feel like this last fall is a big, important one. A turning point maybe. The fact that my life is only 5% misery, the fact that bliss and perfection are mirages, doesn’t mean we should disregard that intensified emotion of hard times. I think of those times as lenses into an otherwise hidden world within myself. Not very fun to look at, but too important not to look at. Those emotional lows are my truthing points, and I’d better buck up and take heed.

Although life is complicated, and I can’t expect to fulfill my wildly high expectations, I do need to stop shelving myself and my goals. It’s not helpful to anyone. It’s the same old martyr bullshit that I am always fighting.

But. Let’s get on to that 95%, eh? That last post was written, not coincidentally, at the beginning of my true break. Christmas done, mother gone, flu averted and My Man still has another week before school starts. It’s just the sort of miracle I needed. I have had a few afternoons to myself already, and this morning begins a pre-arranged two whole days of bonafide vacation from mothering. Morning till night, two days in a row. All me.

It feels almost sinfully decadent. No, in fact it feels fully sinfully decadent. I had to force myself to take it since after my few afternoons I was already feeling so much better. Good thing I asked ahead for this weeks ago, locking myself in.

This morning, in the wee hours of dawn I crept out of bed. Alone! I quietly pulled on my clothes, packed a bag with entirely grownup things like books and computer, and stole outside. Sunday morning, no one out except the paper man. I rode my bike, no trailer attached, to the bakery and sat quietly ruminating over coffee and croissant. I have a sushi date with two dear friends for lunch, and the rest of the day deliciously empty.

And tomorrow too? My lord, what will I do with all this time?

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I’m beginning to wonder if I’m a fraud.

Lately, for months now, I just don’t feel like being a mama. My kids, my darling beautiful firecrackers, just seem like so much trouble. I have no patience for them whatsoever, everything short of perfect angels pisses me off.

At first I thought it was just because of our big scare, then because we were emotionally recovering, then because My Man’s finals were upon us, then again because we were recovering from those finals. But now he’s been out of school for two weeks, we’ve lazed around and taken it plenty easy, and I am not bouncing back. Some days even their angelic-ness pisses me off. There was one afternoon, frosting Christmas cookies with my girl, the 2yo napping so that she and I could delve deep into our creative task. It should have been a triumphal moment. Hallmark material. But she kept making these little happy noises and I couldn’t concentrate for want of some goddamned quiet.

That’s when I knew something was deeply wrong.

When one has a regular job, there are days, sometimes weeks at a time when you hate your job, when you just don’t want to get up and go to work in the morning. So you call in “sick” or take a vacation, sometimes you go to work anyway with a bad attitude. Eventually there is the big flat wall of burnout, when you’re heart goes out of it and the job becomes a drudge. It occurred to me that I have never kept a full time job for more than 6 months consecutively. I don’t like doing the same thing every day, day after day. I never have, and pre-kids I had structured my life so that I didn’t have to.

Now here I am, 4.5 years into the same job, no vacations to date, going to work anyway with my bad attitude. And let me tell you in case you haven’t been here yourself, it feels like shit to hate your job when your job is taking care of your babies. It feels like shit.

You know I have struggled all along to embrace this mothering gig. I go in and out of good times and bad, as do we all I’m sure. But lately… lately…

It’s not that I don’t believe everything I’ve said here, I do. Mothering is heady, important, pivotal work, we should feel proud, hold our heads high, regardless the lack of any other product for our days. We are raising the next generation, giving them the values and skills that we believe matter. It’s not just okay to stay home with our kids, it’s goddamned beautiful!

As chronicled here on this blog, I submitted myself to my work, I let go all my grandiose ideas for how my life was going to be. It was hard, breaking even, but I think I actually did manage for awhile. Submission served me well during that hardest year in my life, when surrender equalled survival. I survived.

But as much as I have tried to release myself from the cultural expectation of productivity, of ‘greatness,’ I have not at all succeeded. I am beginning to admit to myself that yes in fact, selfish or not, I do want to do something big in the world. I do want to make my little mark and be recognized for my accomplishments. I am beginning to suspect that maybe, for me at least, trying to jam that desire back down and down and down again is simply not going to work. Compression can be explosive.

The explosion came last week. My Man mentioned the possibility of working for his dad in August. It sounds harmless enough, right? If I weren’t such a spoiled twat I would be thankful that we have this incredible safety net, cushioning our re-entry into a world of doubtful income. But instead, I completely lost it.

To understand you’ll need some background, and I’m sorry to say I have to go way, way back. Before Children.

Before we had kids, the idea was that we would split the parenting. As much as I champion staying home with your kids, I never in fact wanted or intended to be the full-time parent. Splitting it down the middle seems so brilliantly perfect to me, each parent getting what seems like just the right amount of time with their kids, and just the right amount of time to invest in grownup endeavors. We are both very driven people. My Man wanted to stop industrial progress via legal monkey-wrenching, and I wanted to figure out how to live as much as possible independent of that industrial system– a perfect team.

But dear god, we thought we could do all that and have kids? Of course we had no idea how much time and energy kids would take. The split parenting would work if we were both just righteously kicking ass in those kid-less hours, but then who’s gonna pay the bills? Someone has to get an at least moderately real job, and splitting the job force just doesn’t often work in the real world. Jobs are not generally constructed to be done part time. So we fell, like most couples, right along the gender lines. Man bringing home the bacon, Woman cooking it, feeding it to the little mouths and cleaning up afterwards. It was not how I’d imagined it, but life never is.

Then it became apparent that My Man needed to go to law school in order to continue fighting his Good Fight. I saw that he was restless and dissatisfied with his limitations, I knew that becoming a lawyer would allow him to kick a lot more ass, and ideally put a bit more bacon on our table than the non-profit he had been working for. I knew that as far as kids and families go, the sooner we got the job done the better, so I said yes. Let’s leave for three years.

Our first 4 or 5 months here in New Orleans were rough for me. I was hugely pregnant and toting a two year old through heat like I had never even conceived of, My Man gone all day learning exciting new things. I had not a friend to speak of, no mountains, no forests, no gill nets, rifles, berry buckets, no chest freezers or stacks of firewood. Everything I had worked toward with my life in Alaska completely irrelevant to this one.

We had been planning to go back home in the summers, so that I could work and get a break from the parenting and My Man could be with the kids more. First hitch was the oil spill here in the Gulf, providing an opportunity for My Man to put everything he had worked for, both in school and before, to good use. But, in retrospect I see that going home for the summers was an unrealistic plan in the first place. Three plane tickets per summer, averaging almost $1,000 each. The logistics of subletting our house here and finding a place to stay up there. Just a big fat money-sucking endeavor, all for the sake of some mountains?

So. We stayed. And I had my next big crisis, seeing the realities of life and money and kids collide, the slow receding of my lofty dreams.

But I met a friend, a kindred; and then over time even a small handful of them. I began to feel at home. I rerouted my towering ambitions to the smaller scape of the household, made a little garden, got cozy with the farmers market, discovered a latent passion for writing.

I faced myself, squared my shoulders, and kept at it. The kids grew up a bit and I gained a little of that blessed distance perspective, remembering that this too shall pass.

I looked forward to the time when we would return to Alaska, my familiar things all laying in wait for my return. My pressure canner, my fertile garden beds, my hunting rifles, my chest freezer and 14 dozen canning jars– all my dormant skills tingling with anticipation. We would go back in May, but My Man would need to study for the Bar, and wouldn’t really be free until late July. Then– then! He would be ready for a break, we could split the parenting for a month or two while I played with myself.

I am very good, disturbingly good, at accepting just about anything so long as I am given time to prepare my mind for it, and an end date to hold out for. Outwardly I might seem perfectly adjusted, but inside myself I hold on to that end date with a frightening tenacity. If it’s taken away, or some relief that I had counted on falls through, I go ballistic.

And so it was that when My Man mentioned casually that maybe we could all go to Spokane in August and he could work for his dad for a month, I had a breakdown of epic proportions. All four years of putting myself on the shelf for later roared to life and I became quite an unrecognizable blur of enraged weeping.

He was blindsided. We need the money and almost more importantly, he needs the health insurance. Our other option is a patchwork of self-employment and part-times, paying out seperately whatever ridiculous insurance premium they charge for a cancer survivor. His dad (also a lawyer) truly needs the help, and after a month in Spokane he could work long-distance from Cordova and continue to get the insurance coverage until he muddled out his own work situation. It made perfect sense. He suspected I might not like it, but thought he’d just test the waters and see how I felt.

I felt like the rug had been ripped out from under me and the world was coming to an end. I felt like I’d been chewed up by this growling, frothing motherhood beast which had, at long last, spit me out the other end. Stunned, confused, bloody.

Which brings me finally to my point, dear patient reader. If I am that conflicted inside, if I am holding myself so violently hostage that just the mention of an idea like that throws me into utter oblivion, isn’t something wrong?

As it always goes, this was just the pus rupture of a big fat long-infected wound. I have been feeling a growing concern that I’m actually not suited to being this awesome rock-the-home mother that I write so radiantly about. I want to be that mother, I really do, and for a long time I tried. But maybe I am just not cut out for it. Maybe I would be a better mother if I put the little guy in day care.

I hope you know that I am not opposed to day care. I have always felt that every family must work these issues out for itself. I do believe that, all else being equal, having mom or dad nearby for the majority of the early years is probably better, but I have never been so shortsighted to think that all else is ever equal. Life is nothing if not uproariously complicated. All financial factors aside, mom and dad are no good to anyone if they’re not happy and healthy, more or less. If day care and the real live grown up job it allows preserve some sanity and joy in the home, then I say hell yeah!

But here’s my particular quandry– I don’t want to leave the home to go work at a job. My thing, what I want to do with my hours, doesn’t make money. It might keep a bit of money in our pockets at the supermarket, but I’ve been doing it long enough to know that the direct savings are nothing to write home about. It increases our quality of life, which of course cannot be valued and I never cared to try before. But now that we have a family and all the bills inherent in our (modest!) lifestyle, our days have come down to a tally of hours. For every hour that I wish to be able to weed the garden or can strawberries without the constant interruption of spill wiping, leg hanging and fight breaking up that whittles 60 minutes down to six, My Man must give up an hour of work. Or, alternatively, I put my kid in day care and essentially pay $10/hour to weed my garden?!?!?! What the fuck?

I know that in two more years, the little guy will start kindergarten and I will have 2 or 3 hours a day to do my thing, even more the following year. I know that my kids are growing up, and fast, and before I know it they won’t even want to be around me. I’ll have buckets of time on my hands.

And maybe that’s what this is all about after all. Some wiser, if a bit premature, part of myself preparing for the time when my babies will need me to step back and give them space. Maybe this is some kind of protective measure– me chomping at the bit so that when they open their doors to boot me out, I’ll already know where I’m going.

Or maybe I really am just tired, still recovering from one hell of a few months. Our two week “break” so far has included Christmas, a 12 day mother visit, and now the flu. Last night before bed, as I surveyed the wreckage of our unusually filthy house with dismay, My Man said hopefully that maybe tomorrow we’d both feel better and we could really get on with our supposed break. I gave an exhausted sigh, “Yeah. Tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll take over the world.”

“No,” he said brightly. “You will take over the world. I’ll watch the kids.”

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Do you remember how I said I was building my daughter a dollhouse for Christmas? Back at the beginning of the month I carefully planned it out on graph paper, borrowed a friend’s power saw, cut the pieces and stacked them in the garage.

Then on my last Saturday afternoon off before My Man’s crazy test weeks, instead of diligently working on the dollhouse, I met a friend downtown to check out the New Orleans Fringe Fest. In between shows, we were wandering around the ridiculously charming art/punk part of town and got swallowed into the looming maw of an enormous junk shop. There were a few pieces of furniture for the 4yo’s dollhouse I wasn’t sure how I was going to make, so I asked at the front if they had any. Another wanderer overheard and practically accosted me, “Are you looking for a dollhouse? We still have my daughter’s up in the attic, it’s got a ton of furniture. I’d love to get rid of it.” He pressed his card at me.

I was still convinced I had enough time to make my own– hell, I’d already started! So I gave him an incredibly non-comittal answer and went about my day. A few days later, beginning to accept my oncoming fate of two weeks of 24/7 parenting, and listing in my mind all the things I would still need to do to make this dollhouse (let alone any other Christmas presents) I dug out the card. Maybe I’d just see how much he wanted for it.

The end of this story is evident, right? $75 dollars and a trip across town later, I had the 4yo’s present all taken care of and stashed in the back of the closet. No impending work, no need to borrow a jig saw, no tiny furniture to figure out. All done.

I was so sad I almost cried.

Perhaps you need some background for this story. You already know about my die-hard desire (unfulfilled) to make everything at home and by hand. You can probably guess at my dislike for the relatively low quality construction of the house I bought, and the two boxes of furniture and tiny accessories that came with it which will be strewn across the floor of our entire house by this time next week.

But what you are not likely to understand is that I adore dollhouses, and miniatures in general. I loved them far beyond girlhood, as evidenced by Dumpster Diver Barbie (yes, those are tiny bagels in that tiny plastic bag). In fact I have been waiting until my daughter was old enough, fantasizing about this moment when I would make her the perfect, sweet, old fashioned dollhouse. I’ve been cutting and sanding little chunks of 2×4 in my mind, and adding batting and squares of fabric to make tiny beds. No joke!

But in a heavy duty consumer world, where people buy more new crap all the time and consequently clean out their closets regularly to “pare down and simplify,” buying what you need second-hand is always easier, and usually cheaper than making it yourself.

Consider my dollhouse. I was going to use scavenged wood, beautiful 3/4 inch oak faced plywood that I found on the side of the road for free. That’s well and good, saved me at least $40, and I could borrow the tools I needed. But, I wanted to make this dollhouse a little bit fancy, since my girl is getting old enough to care now. I was going to buy scrapbook paper to “wallpaper” the walls and paint for the outside– an easy $10, probably more. And there were a few pieces of furniture I wanted to buy, mainly a toilet and bathtub– $20 right there. Then if I fell for the cast iron wood cookstove I ran across when I was looking online for the bathroom stuff, another $15. I could easily see myself spending $75 by the time it was said and done. And purchasing and consuming new materials, as far as that goes.

This lesson has been driven through my mind at least 94 times since I became an adult, and it’s still only half lodged. It’s why knitting never took for me. Spending $30 for yarn when I could buy a perfectly serviceable hat at the thrift store for $3? Why on earth would I do that? But apart from knitting, I am still hopelessly stuck in my youthful fantasies of almost anthropolgic handcrafting. Particularly once I started mothering, those fantasies blossomed with a whole new meaning. I would be that mother, the one who’s well mannered children are always wearing hand sewn clothing and playing with hand carved wooden toys.

Wow. Motherhood. If nothing else, parenting will lay bare your ardent (and often completely unrealistic) expectations for How the World Ought to Be. And then rip them to shreds.

Every project is different, don’t think I’m knocking DIY unilaterally. But of course it makes no sense whatsoever to spend 3 hours sewing my kid pants from $5 of purchased new material when I can buy good quality pants second-hand for $4. No sense at all to spend hours on handmade wooden toys that will just get shoved under the couch to make room for the plethora of brightly colored plastic toys that seem to breed on their own.

No sense at all. Unless I enjoy the making.

Because, all else being equal, it comes down to how we want to spend our time. When you are a mama, with the implicit drastic limitations on your time, it often distills quite clearly. Do I enjoy my DIY projects more than I enjoy say, an afternoon at the coffee shop to write? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

There are other important reasons that I believe we should keep doing this stuff. All kinds of handcrafting traditions are being lost, and anyone who can keep hold of one is a kind of living time capsule, an asset to humankind. And certainly all those handcrafted items offer a superior sensory experience. Even though a hat from the thrift store costs a tenth as much, it is vastly inferior to one hand knitted by someone who knows what they’re doing.

But moralizing aside, it’s still a matter of doing what makes sense for the time and place we’re really in. Letting go of my wholesome handmade mama image has been painful, but I find more and more often it just makes more sense to B.U.Y.

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It’s 8 o’clock in the morning. I’m sitting here with a cup of coffee, quiet in a sleeping house, writing.

A few short month ago, I would have killed to get my little guy to sleep past 6:45 on a regular basis. Now he sleeps until 7 or 7:30 reliably, occasionally even later. Am I busy praising the stars and relishing my newfound extra sleep and more frequent mornings alone? No. This morning I didn’t get myself up till 7:30 and didn’t get myself coffeed till almost 8, so I’m busy wishing he’d sleep till goddamn 8:45.

And take a nap at 1, thank you very much.

When this mothering job gets really rough, kindly friends remind me that it gets easier as time goes on. But when things are looking up, and I gaze hopefully into the future for a time when things will be even better, those same friends soberly lead me back and say, ‘It doesn’t get easier, really. It just gets… different.’

What the hell? What does it get? Easier or not easier? Get your story straight.

I know kids (and parents) are all quite individual. Not all babies are as high maintenance as mine were. Some apparently sleep. Not all two year olds have daily 30 minute screaming sessions. Not all mothers need time and space for themselves as strangulously as I. Perhaps we, as a family, stir right up into an explosive younger-years cocktail.

Nevertheless I’m pretty sure that, apart from that long span of teenage years too far in my future to contemplate, when people say parenting doesn’t get easier, they are on crack. Parents of the 4-12 set have just plain forgotten what babies and toddlers are like. They have forgotten sleeping a total of 6 hours/night in no more than 90 minute segments and then waking up to a fussy baby and two shitty diapers before coffee. They have forgotten trying to control one child’s screaming fit in public with the other child strapped onto their body. They are under the spell of biological amnesia that allows our species to keep reproducing. I for one am writing this all down, so that I can never blithely tell a mother of a 2yo and newborn that what she is going through is not the very depths of what humans are capable of.

Fear not sweet mama, wherever you are, it does get easier. If you feel completely insane right now, at the very bottom of your barrel, it’s because you are. Things can only look up. Kids grow. It’s really true.

But.

I’m sorry to say, there is a catch. I have come just far enough now to see what it is.

Consider how you have stretched slowly over the years since your very first morning sickness. Things you never thought yourself capable of doing are now old hat. Motherhood is a million times harder than you ever could have conceived of. And yet, simultaneously, you are a million times stronger. You keep thinking ‘fuck me, it can’t get any harder’ and then it does! You keep thinking ‘I can’t hold out any longer’ and then you do! You keep thinking you are at the absolute bitter end of your frayed rope, but your rope keeps stretching.

Which is brave and wonderful and human. I remember one night, washing the dishes at 9:30 pm, after one of those insane days, thinking– I am a demigod. I will never be conquered again. I am now accustomed to working 15 hour days, on 6 hours of disjointed sleep, doing the hardest work of my life. When the impossible-ness of this job subsides, I’ll have the energy and the self-discipline to accomplish anything. The world will be at my feet.

The catch is– that stretchy rope? It shrinks too. It’s a goddamned bungee cord.

It gets easier, yes, but it doesn’t feel easier. When things ease up, I notice the change and appreciate it intellectually, but I still feel like I’m at the end of my rope, every day. I have to hang out with friends in the real crazy year (newborn + 2yo) to remind myself. Oh yeah, my life is hard right now. Plenty hard. But it’s possible. And immediately after that humbling thought, I go back to being mad that my now 2yo didn’t sleep till 8:45.

Maybe I’m just an ungrateful bitch. Maybe, as every little bit of new space opens up, I try to add in too many things. Keeping the house cleaner. Cooking extra for My Man. Writing more. Rioting in my spare time. Maybe it’s just that old ad-borne cultural expectation that we deserve to have it all.

Whatever it is, the outcome is that although it does get easier, it also doesn’t. You won’t have to wake up 6 times a night and then for good at 5:45 to a poopy diaper, you won’t have to strap on a 19 pound weight so that you can finally get the dishes done, you won’t have to listen to hours a day of full-bore screaming. You will be able to calm everyone down by reading a book sometimes, you will be able to leave the room for more than 10 minutes without catastrophe or injury ensuing, the kids will (not always, but often) begin to earnestly and happily play together.

But you will forget the harder times almost immediately, as your body prepares you to continue propogating the species. You will (if you are anything like me) suck down your newfound freedoms and instead of being sated, just want moremoremore. You will wake up one morning in your own bed at 7:30 and wonder honestly if it was all a bizarre dream. You still feel like you are operating at maximum. With a full 8 hours of sleep and 30 minutes of quiet morning, you still feel sparely armored for a day of what still feels like crazy hard work.

All you will have to remind yourself of those farther distances reached are the stretch marks.

You are a demigod.

Related post: The Glory Days

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A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the abhorrent sloth of our latest kid movie-watching binge. It was bad around here for a couple of weeks. The 2yo would wake from sleep crying for Dora. I swear there is some kind of actual crack in that show. Remember how light is supposed to be both particle and wave? I’m convinced that somehow the makers of Dora got the particle part to be crack particles. They radiate out with the vibrating spectrum of colors, straight into your child’s bloodstream. Highly disturbing. Highly effective. Especially, it turns out, on 2 year olds.

But more disturbing is what happens to a harried mama when she is given whole hours, relatively uninterrupted, day after day. I sat on the couch and read. I drank tea. I stared into space when I felt like it, peace marred only by the faint bounce of cartoon voices in the background. I hung laundry. I weeded my garden, not in the heat of naptime mid-day, but in the pleasant morning, after a leisurely cup of coffee.

I had forgotten.

Do you remember? Do you remember the distinct luxury of doing what you wanted to do, when you wanted to do it? That my friends, is some addictive shit.

As the days wore on, and the initial Dora-bender began to ebb, I found myself crashing hardest. ‘Fuck. I have to get up, yank my wastedly tired body out of bed, and right off the bat start mothering? Are you kidding me? How can this work?’ After two weeks of part-time digital childcare, I had lost the ability to mother for more than an hour or two at a time. Or rather, the ability was probably still there, but the expectation of that as normal was gone.

Then the inevitable set in. Movie-watching as crack can only last so long for healthy children in even moderately interesting environments. After a couple of weeks, the 2yo began to get bored of Dora. And subsequently Diego. (The 4yo, for what it’s worth, had been watching more than her share of movies too, but had not gotten the junkie eyes. Different stages of development, I guess.) After two or three depraved weeks, the little atrophied muscles finally rebelled. Earnest sibling fights began. Movie watching became as hard to referee as anything else.

When one day I actually yelled (yelled!) at the 2yo to go watch his movie, I finally woke from the reverie. Time for an intervention.

Here’s the good news, for any of you who may find yourself in a similar situation. So long as you let them run their course, kid movie-watching binges are not as hard to break as they might seem.

CJ’s Six Step Program for Digital Addiction in Children

Step 1: Accept that you as the parent are about to lose any and all ‘you-time.’ Don’t worry, you’ll get some back, later.

Step 2: Watch for the right moment. I have a friend who managed to pull her kids off the movies mid-bender, but with my two little firecrackers, forceful parenting almost never works. Instead, I wait for a natural wane in the fervor. In my experience, it will come after a couple of weeks.

Step 3: Offer alternatives. Not half-hearted bullshit like “Wouldn’t you rather color?” but something that actually excites them. This is a good time to become manically social, if your kids are into it that is (mine are). Unearth any hidden toy boxes, or pick up some new junk from the local thrift. Also, although this could backfire, certain food bribes can work so long as they are out of the house. For example, walking to the ice cream shop.

Step 4: Be patient. It takes a couple of weeks to get back into regular life. At first they will be excited to go visit friends but as soon as they get home, they’ll want to turn on the tube. They’ve forgotten how to play in a room with a screen. Like any addict, they have to re-learn, and disassociate certain activities. Yes, you can drink a cup of coffee without a cigarette, but it takes awhile to get used to. Thank fuck kids are so much more flexible than grown-ups.

Step 5: If your kids are as feisty as mine, nix any commentary about the process. At the beginning of this particular movie weaning, I made the mistake of mentioning the upcoming effort to my 4yo. I thought maybe she was old enough to participate. We’d sunk so low, I thought maybe even she would have noticed how it affected us all negatively, and we could tackle it together. She was in a good mood. I figured I’d give it a whirl.  She was horrified and threw a fit on the spot. “I don’t want to watch less movies!” she wailed, while I kicked myself repeatedly in the shins. I never mentioned it again, and thank god she seemed to forget the conversation. But we have had plenty of other experiences where my attempts to include her in my parenting agenda backfired in a big way.

Step 6: Determine your comfort level. I’ve talked this through before, but just so we’re clear, I’m not proposing no movies at all. I have a few friends who manage that, and I adore and admire them. But for most kids, an hour or two a day seems to be pretty innocuous. I feel like as long as the rest of their day is full of goodness, and mama gets the break she needs to maintain sanity, it’s a positive equation.

I’ll be straight with you, we’re still occasionally doing three hours a day here at Camp Apron Stringz. I’m not proud of that, but it’s true, so there it is.

Lastly, don’t underestimate your own addiction to their movie-watching. Modern, full-time parenting is some crazy hard shit. No grandparents next door to offer relief. The ingrown expectation that we are supposed to continue our adult lives at the same rate of productivity. It’s no wonder we are blinded by the mere possibility of a few hours of kid-less time. The idea is addictive enough, but the reality, oh dear. If you accidentally get a few days of it like I did, wow. That’s a hard habit to break.

But you can. You will. I did.

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Ever since I first named it and begun to explore it last year, the concept of submission has haunted me. The pea under my mattress, so to speak. I was raised by a very strong, strong-willed woman, and I have grown up into my very own fiery independent female force of nature. I do not yield unless I am overpowered. Yielding is weak. Surrender = defeat.

So much of the difficulty of motherhood has been releasing the reins of control. Beginning with birth and continuing every day since. I am overpowered.

As I’m fond of saying, it’s easy to get down on your knees when you’ve been punched in the gut. I’ve learned a few things down here in the dirt, gasping for breath. It’s a hard way to go, but I like to think I’ve matured some.

One of the things I have been taught, quite entirely by force, is that surrender does not necessarily equal defeat. That yielding can be strong, the ultimate strength perhaps. At first this seemed anti-feminist to me, but I’ve since conveniently re-written feminism to fit my own needs. Honoring the female. And who can argue that yielding is female? In the strictest biological sense, we yield and are thus given the greatest power on earth– to carry and birth another human being.

In a more metaphorical sense, I have seen how surrendering my ego-grip allows everything to happen, opens up whole worlds of possibility. Yielding to life allows me to move forward with grace and poise.

But how to yield? Can I fall to my knees without the punch in the gut? Shouldn’t there be another way?

Over the last year, as the submission pea rolled around under my mattress turning me black and blue, I have started to feel a pull towards some kind of spiritual practice. Some way to connect with that surrendering soft part of myself which lays hidden under the white knuckle grip of ego.

I don’t believe in any gods or goddesses, unfortunately. I have always believed in a spirit element to the world, just as I myself inexplicably have this thing called a ‘soul.’ But I have never been able to believe in a singular cohesive spirit, so religion is pretty much out for me. I did try the local Unitarian Universalist church a few times. They welcome folks of any persuasion whatsoever, atheists included, and carefully leave the word ‘God’ out of their service. I enjoyed it, enjoyed the opportunity to focus on farther reaching concepts than my typical diapers/dishes/clutter-management shtick, but the whole church experience really is just a turn off for me. And in their attempt not to exclude anyone, it felt sort of cold and spiritually sterile.

The classic for folks of my ‘alternative’ bent is Buddhism. I have several Buddhist friends, and I’m glad it works for them, but I have just never been able to swallow what feels to me like an inherent scorn for the physical world. I’m a hedonist above all else, and I will take my spirit world with a heavy crust of black dirt under the nails please.

Not to mention that meditating for my rat-wheel brain has been a big fat not happening. I know, it takes time. Zen with it honey. But, time is in short order around here.

On the phone recently with a friend, I said something like, “Dammit. Are you telling me I have to meditate? Can’t you give me something easier?” She laughed, “What, like 10 Hail Marys?”

Yes! That is exactly what I meant, exactly what I wanted. Meditation is fine for some, but it is some damn hard shit. Hail Marys, on the other hand, along with rosaries, 5 times daily bowing to Mecca, and prayer in general are for us– the common people.

Prayer is so completely wrapped up in religion for me, but as I picked it out over the next few weeks I realized that essentially it’s just a tool for submitting your ego to something greater, a formula to occupy your brain while your heart communes with the Great Mystery.

And so, after a little groping around in the dark, and a helpful Unitarian Universalist recommendation for non-denominational prayer, I settled on my own atheist prayer practice.

I really liked the idea of beads, a physical grounding element and focal point. As I walked around the the bead store looking for just the right stones to rub, I suddenly realized that I needed pink. I have always patently hated pink, which I associate with the cute, girly weakness I have so sought to eradicate. But standing there looking over the colors I realized that pink is yielding. It is exactly the stumbling block I need to get the fuck over. And didn’t I remember some witchy friend telling me that rose quartz opens the heart chakra? (Right after she told me that every one of my chakras was blocked…) That’s just what I need. Some heart chakra.

So I picked out a big smooth hunk of pretty-in-pink heart opener. I strung it up with 18 small “breath” beads punctuated by 4 turquoise “intention” beads. I wrote out a litany of words for myself, roughly following the UU recommendations which seemed to cover the bases. I don’t feel like the words are hugely important. More the intention, which maybe is different for everyone. For myself it’s about quieting my mind and opening my heart. It’s about remembering that I am small, that the wide world is big, that I can ask for help, and be thankful for all that I have. Surrendering with grace.

This new prayer practice is far, far from perfect. I’ve been trying to kneel down twice a day, once when I wake, and once just before bed. But I often don’t get the morning time alone, or the Babe wakes up halfway through, leaving me half-prayered. After the initial fervor of the new words running through my mind, and new beads in my fingers, my mind started to wander off a lot. And there’s a certain irony in devising my own prayer ritual in order to submit my ego to the Great Mystery. Not to mention spending almost $70 on pretty beads so that I can get in touch with my heart realm. But I figure the point is to focus your spirit towards your best intentions, and then let the rest work out in the wash.

That’s why they call it ‘practice,’ right?

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I always thought I would grow up to be a kick-ass Alaskan homesteader. By age 15 I had dreamed out in incredible detail how I would build my log cabin, milk goats that survived on willow scrub, tend a garden carved out of the wild bush, hunt, fish, can berries for the long winter. I made countless graph paper sketches of cabin and garden layouts, lists of the groceries my family would need for one year in our bush homestead home.

Oh yes, my future kick-ass self was always a mama. In the fantasies, they blended so seamlessly– homesteading and mothering. Fantasies are lovely that way. In my ‘pre-enactments,’ the kids were perennially about 10 and 12. They did chores and homeschooled. They more or less took care of themselves, Swiss Family Robinson style. I don’t remember ever washing their dishes or doing their laundry (by hand in the creek?) I was busy kicking ass, right?

After the reality of kids, and just life in general, my homesteading vision was tamed down a bit to this punk housewife gig. Lately, in addition to rocking the garden and kitchen, in addition to raising up two gorgeous kiddos, I want to be able to write. A lot, apparently. A friend recently suggested that maybe I’m not meant to be a full time mama. Maybe I should just bite the bullet and sign my kids up for day care. But I don’t want to have to give up being with my kids to write. I don’t want to give up punking my household for either. I want everything I want. I want it all.

Because I’m worth it.**

I am always so profoundly disturbed when I dig deep, deeper within my psyche and unearth– the advertising industry.

Fuck me.

Under everything, all my intellectualizing, my earnest desire to affect change, my renegade claim, my hippie upbringing, my alternative education– under all that self that should know better is a solid foundation of good old American free enterprise. Which has underwritten me with the belief that I can and should have it all.

Capitalism wants you to think that you’re “worth it,” so that you will buy it. Corporations profit hugely off of an infinite desire for more, and a faith in the god of ‘having it all.’ If they can keep us believing that ‘all’ is possible, we will keep spending until we get it.

And they can keep us believing. They have the big bucks to spend on the top pyschologists in the world, to determine exactly how to shape us all into perfect consumers. I hate to venture into conspiracy theory territory here, but if there is a ‘they,’ it’s the ad industry. They have the tools, the brains, the money and the motive to control the entire modern world. Because who is safe from media these days? No one I know, and I know some contenders, believe me.

Media is everywhere. Big Brother had nothing on us. Look around you right now and count corporate logos. How many electronic devices are within reach, how many of them are on? How often do you look at something designed by corporate advertising?

If I think too hard about it, I get completely creeped out. Horror movie style. They are in me! No one is safe!

My Man always laughs at conspiracy theorists. He thinks the government’s too stupid to pull anything like that off. Bumbling idiots, he calls them. And maybe the ad industry is too. Maybe they’re not even trying to rule the world. But no one can argue that they are trying to make the maximum possible profit. And nothing ensures profit like a captive audience with an insatiable appetite.

How does this fit together? The ad industry’s evil plan to take over the world and my worn out “lost dream” story?

Well, here I stand at the ready, insatiable appetite for coffee, chocolate, heirloom seeds, and self-images. I want to be all and everything. I think I deserve to be everything. Wholesome mama, passionate wife, punk urban homesteader, and now respected writer on top of everything else. Who the hell do I think I am?

This is such a big subject, I hesitated to tackle it at all. To plumb the depths of this one would take far, far more time than I have. But let me ask you this? Why do we think we can have it all? Why do we think we are worth it when people all over the world, throughout history have had to be just plain old whatever-their-families-needed-them-to-be in order to put food on the table? Why do we all think we can accomplish so much more in our small lifetimes than anyone else?

And why, oh why, is this even more prevalent among us ‘alternative’ folk? We think we’ve circumvented The Man and his evil plans. We think we’ve banished the rampant consumer instinct, the materialistic desire for moremoremore, when in fact, we just moved it over 6 inches. We want moremoremore life, moremoremore accomplishment.

When My Man and I got together, at some point as courting couples often do, I asked him what he wanted from life. Among other things, he said he wanted to be ‘great.’ I remember scorning him a little, his egotistical desire to make history. Many years later I have finally realized that I wanted to be ‘great’ too, I wanted to accomplish what so many people before me have failed to do, to succeed exceptionally in many things at once.

Everyone I know, same story more or less. We start out thinking we can have it all. When the natural limitations of life start to sink in, typically in the 30s, and we realize we are not going to get it all, we feel disillusioned. We start throwing blame. If we have a family, we blame it on being tied down. If we’re single, we blame it on loneliness. If nothing else, we can always blame it on our parents!

If we could just wipe that slate clean. Stop blaming, stop expecting to be superheros, stop thinking we’re so extra special.

If I could do that.

Oh how my life would be easier! If I could just vanquish the ads.

Because I am worth it. I’m worth not feeling perpetually dissatisfied because I can’t accomplish every single goddamn thing I ever dreamed up. I’m worth feeling worthy without the right mascara/handbag/woodswoman image. I am worth just being me, whatever shape that may take over the course of my lifetime. Homesteader, mother, writer, wife, frumpy stinky me washing my 659th load of dishes in a plain old sink with running water and Joy soap, like every other American housewife. No accessories, no glory. Just me.

We’re all worth it.

**For any overseas readers or folks who grew up under a rock, “Because I’m Worth It” was a slogan created for L’Oreal in 1973 to sell their higher priced hair products. According to AdSlogans: “The message was all about what the woman thought. It was about her self-confidence, her decision, her style. Over time, “Because I’m Worth It” has become part of our social fabric and today an astonishing 80% of women recognize and respond to this positive phrase and powerful sentiment.”

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My first born turned two on July 9th, 2009. She turned three, not surprisingly, exactly one year later. For the duration of that year she was absolutely, without a doubt, every inch of ‘two.’

I’ve heard many different stories since. As she approached her third birthday, people started to say, “Oh, you thought two was rough, just wait till you see three!” But for our girl, it was like clockwork. From birthday to birthday, she fulfilled her 2yo duties. She raged at life. She could scream, like a banshee, like her life was ending, for forty-five motherfucking minutes, throwing her little body around with surprising strength. As with every other part of mothering, I had had no idea what a fit could be like.

They don’t call it a ‘fit’ for nothing. Like in an epileptic fit, she seemed to all but disappear. She became almost possessed, I don’t mean demonically, but in the sense that once she got going, all you could do was stand back, protect her from harm and let the thing take it’s course. They always lasted for at least 20 minutes, 30 was average. During her peak phases, of which there were a few over the course of that year, she had one to two fits per day. During the ‘lulls’ she would average probably 3/week.

I thought I would maybe die.

I want to write this post because I want to expose the possibilities of the two year old. Like everything else, I went into it completely unprepared. I suspect most of us do, removed as we are in this country from small children. I had heard about the ‘terrible twos,’ of course, but I thought screaming fits were a sign of bad parenting. A discipline problem that just required firm, consistent parenting.

I want to write this post, not to scare anyone with an approaching-2yo, every kid is different and what we went through was not necessarily normal, but to reassure anyone entering this difficult phase with a particularly stormy child that these intense fits are also not abnormal.

I don’t have any tips, don’t bother scrolling down for an acronymed ‘fit response system.’ After all that whole year I still have no idea if I could or should have done anything different. Instead of advice, as is my way, I want to offer solace, solidarity. Voicing of what typically goes unsaid.

You are not alone.

Your kid is not a demonic freak.

You are not failing as a parent.

Here’s one thing I did figure out. Parents with dramatic 2yos don’t go out in public. They are too afraid of the public shaming. The people you see, out and about, are the people with the naturally ‘well-behaved’ kids (there are a few in the world). The moms who can actually manage to pull it together to say, brush their hair. Who are relatively confident that their kid will not pitch a fit on them. And when kids do pitch a fit, they are taken kicking and screaming to the car. Out of sight, out of mind.

Because I don’t usually drive, we did have a handful of fits on street corners, and I am talking sitting on the side of the road, trying to contain a screaming, flailing kid for 20-40 minutes (don’t forget newborn in Ergo carrier!) One such occasion was extremely insightful.

We were having the classic, ‘I don’t want to walk home, carry me!’ fight, where I have 20 pounds of newborn strapped on, no stroller because it was such a short walk I wouldn’t need one, right? and I refuse to carry her two and a half blocks, on the principle of the matter. Because she’s throwing a fit about it, and I think I shouldn’t give in to her fits. So, we sit there on the side of the road for 25 minutes. She is screaming like I’m stabbing her heart out, picking up rocks from someone’s driveway and throwing them into the road. A car pulls up.

Fuck me, it’s the person who lives here. Shit. Son-of-a-bitch.

A well put together woman in her 50s gets out of the car. I am trying to physically pull my girl away from the driveway when the inevitable question comes.

“Is everything okay?”

I let out an enormous breath and force a smile. “We’re alright,” I say, “She doesn’t want to walk.” I give that knowing adult look that condescends the child.

The woman kneels down next to my wailing banshee and starts to talk to her. About the walk, the day, what it’s like to have a new baby in the house. At one point she looks up at me and says kindly, “I’m a child psychologist.”

Are you fucking kidding me? Great. Just what I need right now.

But she is just so gentle and understanding, reiterating several times about how hard it is to accept a new sibling, and how hard it is to be two. Eventually the tears dry up and we manage to walk the 2 1/2 blocks back to our own house. Me feeling humbled. My girl completely exhausted.

I want to tell you how you are not alone, but I also want to do what a good friend did for me– I want to give you license to feel empathy for your little person. I had judged so harshly before I had kids. Thinking that fits were to get something. That parents were being manipulated. I have no doubt that this happens, and no doubt it happened to us many times. But it is only one part of the story.

When her fits first started I remember thinking with surprise that they didn’t seem like an attempt to manipulate. Instead it seemed like just so much unbelievably intense emotion had built up that her little body couldn’t contain it and it exploded in one engulfing physical storm. Nevertheless, I thought I was supposed to not give an inch. That this was some kind of trial by fire, I needed to show her that those explosions didn’t get her anything. Not whatever it was she had been refused that had sparked the fit, but also not any kind of special attention that might make her think fits=attention.

Amazingly I would always become calm when these emotional storms hit. Maybe it’s the luck of personality. To me it felt like she just sucked all the air out of the room, like there wasn’t any left for me. I get plenty rageful as a mom, you know that by now, but somehow not when she was raging. One at a time I guess.

For the first few months, my tactic was to remain in the room with her, but withdraw myself emotionally. I felt that I shouldn’t ‘reward’ her ‘bad behavior’ with my attentions. This was extremely awkward, and several times felt downright wrong as she hung from my legs screaming my name in mortal agony while I did my best to ignore her. But as parents often do, I persevered because I thought it was the right thing to do. After about a month, the fits subsided a bit, and I tentatively patted myself on the back for showing her what was not an ‘appropriate’ way to behave.

Of course, that first wave was just one of many. The whole scene resurfacing several times over that year. As I watched her suffer these tremendous hurricanes of emotion, again and again, my feelings that she was trying to get something diminished. I don’t think I even once rewarded her with the original object of her fit. I can be strong that way. Whether I had in fact given her the attention I feared she might equate with acting out is harder to answer. But in the end it became a moot point for me, because I started to feel for her. I started to think how horrible if, during your moment of greatest distress, confusion, terror, your mama stopped being emotionally available to you. I had reassured myself that I had always stayed physically near to her, but have you ever had a lover who lay next to you, skin to skin, yet closed their heart? There are few things in life more isolating, few lonelinesses greater.

Then again, what can you do? Is it right to just sit there and focus on them for 40 minutes? There was nothing particularly I could do for her, she would never let me touch her once she got going. No alternatives were accepted, no derrailing or distracting ever worked. She would have turned down ice cream in the middle of a fit. Literally, all you could do was wait it out.

And what about, quite practically, siblings who need attention as well? Pots on the stove boiling over? Floors needing swept? When your kid is screaming for 20-60 minutes a day, you can’t really afford to just hang out with them throughout their many moments of need. Would it even be right for them emotionally to be the focus in that situation?

Like I said, no answers here. By the end of our year, although my routine was outwardly identical– I would stay in the same room and attempt to do something else– I had made a possibly critical change. I would try to keep my heart open to her. I would check in every few minutes with offers of a glass of water, a snack, or to snuggle on the couch and read a book. The offers were never taken until the storm was on it’s way out anyway. But I felt that offering showed I was still paying attention to the fact that she was having a hard time. I kept the line open between us.

Otherwise I would just let her rage. Which is not so easy as it sounds. She would often be hanging from my leg, screaming at the top of her lungs. I would try to pretend I was still cutting up carrots for dinner or whatever. I felt this conveyed the message that life goes on, that no matter how she felt the world was ending, I was confident that it would continue to exist. I felt like if I made too big of a deal out of her crying that it would reinforce her feeling that in fact something was horribly wrong. I wanted to keep a steady, calm anchor of regular life to her wheeling passion storm. But as I said, for me, the difference was all in my heart. I allowed myself to feel empathy. ‘I see that you are really suffering. I am confident that you will be okay. I am here for you if you need something, I’ll be be cutting these carrots up.’

I am telling you this, not because I think I have it all figured out. Maybe I ruined my kid by not sending her to her own room for these screaming sessions. Or maybe I ruined her by not sitting down to share in her rage. Hell if I know. But, in the end I did what felt right to my heart. And if I have any advice at all, it’s to do what feels right to your heart. I don’t believe as some do that our hearts always lead us the right way, sometimes hard things must be done, things that hurt. But as far as a guiding principle, I think it’s a good one.

Mostly I want you to know that things will change. Children change. Constantly. Fits at two does not mean fits forever. ‘It’s a phase’ always seemed so patronizing to me. Almost derogetory. But damn is it true! And when I take away my own baggage from that phrase, it’s so technically accurate. It’s a phase of development. Like the pupa phase. A fact of life.

I often look at my girl and find myself expecting a miniature adult. She is not an adult, she is four years old. She is a bit more than half her mature physical height and less than a quarter of what could possibly be considered a mature age. Why do I have such a hard time accepting her ‘immature’ behavior?

Your screaming banshee is going through a phase of growth. There are many things to learn, and many of them are very hard. She is becoming aware of herself as separate from you, finding out that she is master of her own self. She is struggling to learn how to wield this power. Imagine the exhilaration and absolute terror at such power!

Do not doubt that she is learning, just as fast as she possibly can. Do not doubt that she is growing and will become a 3yo, a 4yo, a 10yo, an adult. This distance perspective, so often lost to us when we are in the midst of a hurricane year, is perhaps the most important thing of all. Breathe. Open your heart. Stand up once in a while and look out over the horizon– somewhere beyond those black clouds the sky is blue.

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The 3yo turned 4. Did you hear? Her hours of imaginative play have evolved. Lately she gets it in her head that she want to make a very specific thing. She has apparently boundless faith in my ability to construct anything out of paper, string and tape. Which is endearing, if a little tiresome.

“Oooo, I know! Let’s make a conductor costume!” (?)

“I want to make bunny ears, and bunny feet, and a tail!”

Or, this morning, “Mama, my baby dolls are sick. They need one of those things that people ride in when they’re sick.”

“Umm, you mean a wheelchair? You want to make a wheelchair.”

Fortunately she has low standards. Or rather, a very good imagination.

Today as I racked my brain how to circumvent this daily ‘let’s make something that’s almost impossible to make out of paper and glue’ game, it occurred to me that I need to stop my part in it. I come at the problem with the engineer brain of a 34 year old. She comes at it with the imaginative brain of a 4 year old. We’re not building bridges here, obviously the ball should be in her court.

So, I sat down, gave her my attention, and instead of reluctantly sifting ideas for how to make rolling wheels with an attached frame, I looked at my girl. “How should we do it?” I asked.

Turns out she already had an idea, “Well, we have to put these two bolts together with tape to make the wheels. And….” her eyes scan the room, “this can be the part the dolls sit on.” She pulls out a paper grocery bag.

Right.

Here I am thinking we actually have to make some approximation of a wheelchair. That what she wants is a wheelchair.

But whenever we make these random projects, she plays with the thing for maybe ten minutes. What she wants is to make a wheelchair. The making of it, the inventing and imagining of it.

As is so often the case with parenting, when I can just shut my own brain off, and follow her lead, the path is revealed to me.

A handful of bolts, taped onto a paper bag. Wheelchair. Of course.

Why didn’t I think of that?

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Some time back, after shaking the last bit out of a salt canister, I had a brainstorm. I looked at that big cardboard tube and thought, planetarium! We got right to it, poking star holes with the pointy end of a candy thermometer, removing the metal spout to make a peep hole and lastly painting the whole thing night sky blue.

I finally stood back with pride while my girl squinted up one eye and gazed into her private galaxy. And then it hit me.

Holy fuck. I am a mom.

I looked at a salt can and saw a galaxy tube. My brain thinks in scissors and paint, my house is littered with toys in every room, the walls are plastered with children’s drawings, I stroller my kids to library story-time every Tuesday morning, and I almost always remember to pack a variety of wholesome snacks.

I wasn’t exactly terrified. It just…. caught me by surprise. It always does.

Back when I was a mere three months pregnant with the first and our kind-hearted neighbors started bringing by boxes of second hand kid stuff, I freaked out. I was not going to be one of Those Parents. Whose house is overrun by kids’ toys, whose lives are overrun by kids’ activities. Babies don’t need stuff, I told myself. This pre-stockpiling is completely absurd.

There was one moment in particular– A woman I vaguely knew had called to see if I wanted a baby bassinet. “What’s a bassinet?” I asked. She explained and said she’s bring it by for me to look at. I must have missed her knock at the door, because two hours later when I opened it to go out for a walk, there was an enormous monstrosity of white lace blocking my exit. I gasped. I felt dizzy. I considered taking it straight to the trash, but I am too pragmatic for that. As quickly as I could I stripped off the white lace, hauled the bassinet upstairs and exiled it to a dark closet. Similarly the four huge boxes of cloth diapers. I think I might have even made the woman who brought them by feel bad for dumping them on me.

Lo and behold, a few months later that bassinet became critical to my every day. I would lay the babe in it in the kitchen while I did the few necessaries (a really few).  And the diapers, jesus what an ingrate. I didn’t realize I was being gifted hundreds of dollars worth of extremely nice cloth diapers.

But, they just…. caught me by surprise. I hadn’t thought about diapers and bassinets yet. I was still coming to grips with the fact that I could hardly breathe enough to walk up the mountain trail by our house.

Things have continued at such a pace. I am perpetually several steps behind in the ‘gracious acceptance’ department, always suffering from the arrogant expectation that I would be ‘different.’ Having a second helped drive the point in. I had been adamantly against strollers, but come 6 months pregnant, carrying an almost 2yo up the hill in the Ergo with 20 pounds of groceries strapped on back, my resolve began to melt.

These days I look more or less like any mom. Like a real mom. Kids in the stroller, diaper bag bulging, unwashed hair flying everywhere. Life more or less completely folded around my littles.

I do sometimes long for those footloose days when I imagined what kind of mama I would be, imagined how I would be ‘different.’ Everything is possible in one’s imagination.

But I am becoming more and more comfortable with my place down here amongst the human people. Being a mom with a diaper bag. Thinking in scissors and paint. Finding delight in an old salt can. Being overrun by kids.

In fact on the days that I manage to surrender to my role, I sometimes find myself blissfully happy about the entirety of my mom-ness. Like some earthy Madonna, I feel full with motherhood. Peace descends from above. And it’s good.

Which above all is what catches me by surprise. I am mom. I am okay.

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You may have noticed I’ve been posting quite a lot lately, especially considering my ages ago decision to write only on Saturdays. Slowly, over the almost year since that cleansing fast, I’ve crawled back off the wagon into the deliciously wicked addiction of The Blogger. Oh, but isn’t it glorious down here in the dirt!

I have lately given myself reprieve though. After many months of fighting, not just the writing addiction, but also what I can only describe as an addiction to myself, I have given in. I survived a year of incredibly intense mothering, the lips above water kind. Now, things have evened out a bit. My job is still crazy hard, don’t get me wrong. But I am not losing my mind. My Man can sometimes look me in the eye when he gets home from work and still want to ask how my day was.

And as life has become more possible, survival more definite, I have found myself sometimes becoming bored. The typical desperate housewife syndrome I guess. Where is the me outside of the mother? What do I have to show for myself? Where is the space that is mine? All the same regular bullshit.

What of my grand epiphanies? My submission to the noble cause of motherhood, my neo-feminist punk housewifery? Wendell Berry’s pride of home economics; frugality and responsible action and the independent spirit; the garden, the kitchen, the homemade laundry soap? Kids swirling in my undertow, me the brave heroine, brandishing my homegrown parsley.

Despite all that very good stuff, I’m bored.

Fuck. I hate it when I find I am suffering from the same pedestrian maladies as the general population, which I apparently thought I was better than. But there it is.

I am not in my homeplace. In case you are new here, we are in New Orleans for My Man to go to school. Next year we’ll return to Alaska, our little blip of a town in the enormous maw of coastal wilderness. There I have much more to do, much more to focus on, much more that belongs to me. It is my element, the life I spent the other 32 of my years learning how to live. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been desperately homesick, in fact I’ve just recently started to feel homesick at all. This move has been wonderful in many ways and if life were rewound, I would choose it again unhesitantly.

But considering this is a time in life when women are classically groping for what of themselves is left after the tsunami of small children, being out of my homeplace is a bit extra extra.

I realized recently that, for better or for worse, writing has stepped into that place for me. Given me a thing to do that is mine own, and it’s no wonder I find it devilishly addictive.

I am a person who needs an all encompassing project, a kernal to fold my life around. I am happiest in the midst of an Obsession. And mothering… It’s all encompassing for certain, and my life is quite origami-ed around it. But it’s not like it’s my project. The work is very challenging on all levels, but the outcome does not belong to me.

I think that’s what we need as mamas, an outcome we can own. Maybe it’s self-indulgent. Maybe we would be better spending that time meditating, releasing our grip on ego, submitting to the universe. Not to belittle spiritual practice, but friends, if I couldn’t meditate in my 20s– alone in the woods– that shit just ain’t gonna happen with two kids under 5.

So. Outcome it is.

And with that in mind, I have lately given myself permission to write more.

Accepting that my obsessive alone habit involves staring at a computer screen has been hard enough. I spent the majority of my 20s living without electricity, quite passionately in fact. I am a Ludite by nature, skeptical of anything with a cord or battery pack, but especially scorning of what I consider The Era of the iBrain.

But if that’s hard to answer to, here’s the next question. Where do you think a mama of two littles can find the many hours required to indulge in an outcome based activity such as blogging? Some mornings I get 30 minutes or more in the wee hours to glom my face onto a screen, all alone in a quiet room. But other than that, I have to steal my time from my 4yo’s brain, by plugging her into her very own screen during the Babe’s nap.

Just typing that out hurt. Because unlike the more reasonable opinion of most parents, I do think that any little bit of screen time, on a regular basis, is bad for developing brains. I never, ever thought I would have kids who watched tv. I mean, we don’t actually have tv, we have dvds, so that cuts out my biggest beef– commercials. And of course I try to cherry pick from the enormous onslaught of hideously bad children’s programing. But, that still adds up to my daughter’s face slack jawed in front of a glowing screen.

For… (deep breath)… an average of… (deep breath)… 1.5 hours per day.

Wow, is that hard to admit.

I spent a long time fighting it. Really I’ve been fighting from the beginning– when I was 6 months pregnant, packing up our entire house for a move across country, and my MIL sent some childrens’ books on dvd which I found would hold the (no longer napping) 2yo in one place long enough that I could slide my eyes closed for 15 or 20 minutes. I fought it, but then– I did it. So, not a very strong fight I guess. The fight was all in my own heart, and has continued to wage right there. Her mid-day dvd watching became a daily thing and over time an almost unshakable habit, my internal wars notwithstanding.

What is the difference between submission and giving in? How do you know when to fight and when to let go?

This parenting job is tough, and I don’t believe our world is set up to support us right now. I want to choose some moral high ground, to make The Right Decision for my kids. I want to practice no compromise ethics. But this is not a single variable equation. If my girl stares at a screen for 1.5 hours of her day and has a happier mama for it, where is the moral high ground?

I am rolling over that old submission a lot lately, like a pea under my mattress. Sometimes I feel like I tried and failed to submit to motherhood. But really what happened is that I did it, and it really helped for some time, my hardest time. Now I have moved on, we are in a new phase. My job as mother is (perhaps imperceptibly) loosening, and I am looking around, taking a breath. There is a little space for me now, not much, and I can’t help but want to run in there and muscle it open. It’s intoxicating, and confusing.

If I were a better mother, perhaps I would take this opportunity to ween my 4yo off of the afternoon movie. We could spend that time on the floor inventing elaborate pretend play, and she would lap it up like a puppy. I wish I were that mother sometimes, that I could annihilate my ego, truly and absolutely. Become Budhamama.

But here I am, so very human. So very pedestrian. Instead of seeking motherhood nirvana, I think I will leave the housework undone and get in my own 1.5 hours a day.

Here’s to us humans.

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Hey there friends,

Sasha at One Rich Mother left a link to one of her posts on the FB page, regarding the Mama Rage issue. I thought everyone should have a chance to take a look, her post is called The Lost Art of Chill. She lists out the ways that she has used to try to overcome some of her anger issues, or just deal with it more appropriately. While I write about just the emotions of it, Sasha thankfully offered some really good concrete tips. And, this woman has seven children, so she ought to know.

Of course, for us newer mamas, bear in mind that she’s also had some 15 years of practice to get her shit together! While we’re still stuck at the bewilderment stage. “What the f–? It’s like this?”

I think we should open this sucker right up. Anyone else have any posts on the subject they’d like to share, or just feelings, thoughts on anger/rage, or real-life ideas that might help? Leave a comment.

And in case anyone has missed out so far, Lucy at Dreaming Aloud started a ‘Blogging Carnival of Emotions’ with her post The White Heat of Mama Anger. There’s quite a few great links over there.

You non-bloggers, feel free to leave long winded comments, get it all out girl!

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I had a blessed epiphany sometime after my first born turned two. She was fantastically, dramatically two, down to the last detail, and it suddenly occurred to me that she and I were living shockingly parallel lives. We experienced pretty much the same angsts. We both felt completely marginalized. Our own lives were not under our own control, and we couldn’t stand it. Someone else made all the decisions, and we had to make do with whatever was left over.  Everything felt unbelievably intense. We were both attracted and repelled by the ones we loved best. We tried our damndest, yet still felt all our efforts to communicate landed on deaf ears. No one ever listened to us, no one cared. They just dragged us around through a day in a life we didn’t get to conduct.

Consequently, we both did a lot of screaming and crying and gnashing of teeth. My daughter’s fits were considerably more impressive than mine. I was often jealous of her fits and even strangely, vicariously sated by them.

Only, she was two. And I was 32. It doesn’t seem fair that I have matured so little in all those 30 years. Parenting has been a continual reminder of the fact that I’m really not so grown up as I like to think. I had always thought of My Man and I as pretty laid back folk. But since having kids, I have realized that we were really only laid back because we had constructed just the life we wanted, and got to make all our own decisions about everything. Denied the ability to make all my own decisions I discovered a part of myself I had hardly known.

Rage.

I never used to be a rageful person. I am the sad kind by nature, when the going gets tough I crawl into bed and cry. I had to listen to a lot of Ani DiFranco in my 20s, just to discover some requisite anger for survival.

But since I had kids, everything has changed. And I do mean everything.

Mostly I stifle my rage. Letting it out seems to makes things worse, my babies reflect what they feel from me in magnified detail, not to mention the flood of self-loathing afterwards. So I swallow it down like a double shot of turpentine. Gulp for air. Try to remain standing.

This stifled mama rage is almost an emblem of motherhood to me. The job is just so insanely hard, the ability to take vengeance so completely off limits. Some whole days have gone by in which I just kept swallowing. The feeling is indescribably clostrophobic.

Fortunately, I suspect I don’t need to describe it. Although it is rarely revealed in public, and almost never in the fantasized media we are all drowned by, I am quite certain that most mamas feel this poisonous rage. Some more than others, to be sure. The parenting books always cede to this by saying, ‘sometimes, every parent gets angry.’ Is that an attempt to assuage my guilt? ‘Sometimes?’ Seriously? Try every fucking day, and some days without ceasing.

Of course, that’s how it feels in the heat of the moment. I know it’s not really every day, and no day is really all rage. Nevertheless, I sure don’t feel like they pay heed to this extreme and extremely dangerous emotion of parenthood.

What are we supposed to do with our flaring bellies full of turpentine? Obviously, you can’t just keep swallowing that shit down, something’s gonna blow.

I don’t believe it’s good to hide anger from kids. They get angry themselves of course, and since they learn by emulating, they need to see us get angry so that they can learn how to be angry. They need to see us deal with our anger constructively. But that to me is where anger stops and rage begins. If I have myself enough under control to go outside and scream, or pummel a pillow, or otherwise model appropriate angry behavior, then there’s really not a problem.

Rage, on the other hand, is the feeling of being out of control. Which is exactly what a screaming fit is, only our two year olds are about 28 inches tall. Although I am continually surprised at how strong little people can be, they still look relatively innocuous when they are out of control. When you invert the situation– and their small bodies are faced with our enormous mama hurricane, all five foot eight and Kali arms everywhere, howling all the air out of the room– how truly terrifying.

I’m sure it is terrifying on a physical level, but more importantly, their tiny hearts and spirits are all wrapped up in ours. At the tender age of two or three, we are still the beginning and end for them. Their view of the world and themselves is through our lenses. It is worth everything that we give them the best possible view.

All this is to say that I absolutely believe that it is our responsibility to give our best self to our kids. Stop playing martyr and make whatever decisions it takes to be your best self. Circumventing mama rage does not start when the heat flares, it starts the day before when you feel yourself flagging, and muster the courage to ask your man for an hour alone.

But what of the rage when it does come? When you have done what you could do (or didn’t but it’s too late), after you have been the mama you never wanted to be and the wave of remorse drowns you, let it go. Accept yourself as you are and have been. Love yourself, just as you love your two year old, even in the midst of a 40 minute screaming fit. Forgive yourself when you storm and rage, just as you teach your three year old that she is not the sum of the mean words she uses. Believe in your own true, kind spirit, just as you explain to your daughter that she is not the emotions that pass through her, but the enduring beautiful soul beneath.

We cannot be the perfect parents. It is a strange kind of arrogance to feel you are falling short of such an ideal. We are human, and therefore a constant work in progress. Being 34, I am hopefully not even half finished. I am growing myself up. Swallowing the turpentine some days, breathing fire other days. Forgiving myself when I can.

A mama’s heart is splendid and fearsome. We are the all-encompassing force of the world. But underneath our storms and passions, we are still little girls, trying to love ourselves.

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Our almost 4yo started her first day of camp today at the local Waldorf school. She has never been to any kind of camp/school/day-care before, and has only been left with a babysitter a handful of times. This is a big deal for our family.

Not because I’m worried about her– she is incredibly gregarious and was so excited that at 7:45 this morning she was laying on the kitchen floor, dressed for camp, with her backpack on, just waiting until I said it was late enough to get her lunchbox out of the fridge. She explained carefully to the 1.5yo that Papa would drop her off on his way to work and not pick her up until after lunch. Her eyes are wide open with excitement, and my only fear is that she will be heartbroken when the two weeks are over.

No, it’s a big deal because she’s growing up and this is the beginning of her very own solo adventures in the world. Because it means a shift for our family, a whole new era. Of course, it’s only two weeks, but this is the first tiny budding.

This whole school situation is such a perfect example of what I have come to think of as partnership parenting. I didn’t want to send her to school. I advocate being home with your kiddos, if you can and want to. I can, and want to. But she is so hungry for other kids, and in fact the whole school experience– the teacher figure, the cohesive group activities.

She wants it, and so I am doing my best to reconsider my ideas. In my fantasy parenting model, we are both partners, she leads her own life with great consideration for our family, and I lead my own, with great consideration for her. Freedom, not license.

In practice it looks like this: I am trying to find a way for her to freely pursue her desire for a school-like experience, while considering the fact that our family doesn’t have much money to spare.

This is not the way I imagined it. I thought I would be the Great Decider, and she would raft in my wake. Then again, I assumed she would be happy rafting in my wake. I had no idea how early and how extremely they become themselves. Full grown-up persons, in little pudgy bodies.

We always think so black and white. I try to see gray, but it’s hard, it truly is. You have to work at it. I have always thought whether a parent stayed home with their kid was a flexible notion, but before I had thought flexible to the parent. Did the parent want to be home? Did they have a job they were passionate about and didn’t want to give up? Was there childcare available that they felt good about and could afford?

As is continually happening since I had kids, I am realizing the enormous hole in my thinking where the kid’s very own disposition and desires should be.

Before I had kids, I knew there was a range of what was healthy and good. But I had no idea how vast that range was. The epic eye-opening started with pregnancy and kept emphasizing itself throughout the birth, and then every day since. I thought a woman might gain 20-50 pounds with her pregnancy, when in fact I know women who gained as little as 12 pounds and as much as 80, both perfectly healthy pregnancies. I thought labor lasted 6-24 hours. I didn’t know it could take three motherfucking days, as mine did (apparently quite normal for a first). I thought some babies cried more than others. But in truth some babies don’t cry at all, and I heard of one that cried 18 hours a day for the first three months and turned out to be, again, perfectly healthy.

Just as there is this fantastically huge range of pregnancies and babies, there is an exponential range to families considered as a whole. My mind boggles at the possibly infinite variations. That’s why I think parenting advice just isn’t that useful, and judgment is downright blaspheme. I always figure, the best we can do for each other is to pool ideas, to share our own experience in as much detail as possible. Then the other mama can compare notes and see what jives, what feels right for her own family, without fear or shame.

I like to think that’s my patent expression here at Apron Stringz. A resounding, ‘To each their own!’ It’s the honest way I feel, though I am as pulled as anyone by the inherent judgment of our human culture. In writing, I find it especially hard to keep the high-horse voice out. It’s the standard way to write, the formula. Conflict, resolution. Here’s a problem, here’s what to do about it. And consequently we are so convinced by what we read, as if the fact of print means someone didn’t just pull it out of their ass.

Please understand that no matter what I say, no matter what I commit to text, I am just pulling it out of my ass. Sometimes I might really hit the nail on the head for you. And that’s great, my words are true, for you. On the other side of the world some mama stares at her computer screen and shakes her head, ‘what a load of shit.’ And that’s the truth, for her.

To each their own.

So, my girl is off to camp. She has impressed upon the world and our family her very own vision for life, her very own agenda. I can only stand back in awe. What will she do with that beautiful, headstrong will? Where will her adventures lead her? She is at the beginning of her journey. I feel so grateful to be here, to pack her lunch and send her off with a kiss.

 

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I write a lot about parenthood. I am a mama, so that is the voice I take, but I never mean to exclude papas. I know there are at least a few in this readership, brave men who stand up to all the estrogen flying.

I have always meant to write directly to you, for once. And with Father’s Day fast approaching I thought now would be a good time.

I saw a statue once, a small thing, impressionistic. At the center was the sphere of a baby’s head, around which arms circled and, gazing down, the head of the mama. Circling the mama was another swoop of arms and, watching over all, the head of the papa. That image has stayed with me since, almost hauntingly.

In this eternal symbol of family, the mother is sandwiched. I can tell you about that feeling, and often do. I struggle with the claustrophobia of it every day. But at the same time, we are protected. We are given the gift of being able to give all of ourselves to our babies. The father stands, heart open to all that he loves, back to the wild world. I don’t presume to know what that feels like, but I am quite certain it is every bit as challenging.

I don’t often say it, lost as I am in the small world of my own brain, but be assured– when I champion motherhood, I am necessarily championing fatherhood. The difference is the turning over of a coin.

As parents of either gender, at home or supporting the home, we are all of us involved in the growing of people. You papas who go out into the world, you are the interface. You allow us to focus on our babies and be the mamas we want to be. We don’t say it much, turned as we are to the small loud people in the room, but you make everything possible. You are both shelter and inspiration. You hold all that is dear within that span of arms.

Thank you.

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