to be verbs

Last week, my wife described me as shy. It melted my heart. This is because I am shy, but I’m not sure anyone has ever described me that way before because I also love people, so when I’m with them I gather myself up and seem pretty gregarious. But there’s something about being known for who you are and not just who you seem to be, isn’t there?

This comes at the end of J’s summer hours, of the emotionally rich (if economically troubled) stretch of time in which she works only half-time and spends so so so much of each week with us. Hopefully (really really hopefully) this is the last summer we’ll get this luxury because (hopefully) she’ll be firmly planted in a new job when July next comes round. But – though it has taxed us financially – it’s hard to feel anything but gratitude for this time to slow down, to really rely on my co-parent, to immerse ourselves in this work and these babies together. And unlike the end of her maternity leave with Lou (when I was sort of ready for her to get back to work because being home All The Hours makes her a little batty – she will tell you this – and because I need Systems and Routines that are hard to come by with two of us), I am really pretty bummed to have her heading back to full time. It has not been perfect, but it has been nice. She is an amazing Pomo, and even when it’s gotten overwhelming she’s taken the time to tell me that she’s impressed by my ability to do this work day in and day out. Again with the feeling seen. I am pretty lucky.

But now summer is over. J is back to work and I’m listening to our new sitter play with the boys downstairs. Next week I’ll have to leave for office hours, but this week I get the luxury and reassurance of hearing her sing with Bram and seeing her wear the sleeping Bird. She’ll be with them for two small stretches a week all semester (well, two with Lou and one with Bram), which is good for them and for me, though I am terrible terrible terrible at letting it happen. But I start teaching tomorrow night so I’m up here putting the finishing touches on my syllabus and thinking about who Teacher Me is these days. We’ve made the (financially risky) decision to have me teach only one class this semester. This will be great if J finds the right new job, and pretty impossible if she doesn’t. But I believe in her and really: I need to scale back. Teaching almost constantly for the past year with very little childcare has been TOUGH. When I first decided to leave my tenure-track-job search I thought it was just about timing, as in: I would WANT a tenure track line if I could get one in a couple of years, but not now, not when my babies need me, not during this short, fast, critical time. But I’ve come to understand that in some ways, motherhood and serious academia aren’t compatible for me. I look forward to working more someday, when my kiddos are all in full-time school, but even then I think I need a job I can leave at the door because my brain, my soul… there’s already so much I can’t ever put down. But the question is: where does that leave teaching? Last year, teaching was okay. Just okay. Never thrilling. Often frustrating. I wanted to give less at every turn. So this year, with only one class, I’m experimenting with investment. How much can I pour into my students, who FOR SURE deserve everything I’ve got. How much can I give and give and give and still come home and give and give some more. Forty-five students and two kiddos. How expansive and generous can I be without tipping over into Too Busy and Too Much (which is not an option given how I want to parent)? I’m feeling open to finding out.

And all of that has me thinking about what it means to BE these things. Mothers. Parents. Teachers. Wives. The Things We Are. I took a tea phone date with a beloved lady the other day and asked her about a decision she’s been grappling with: whether to or not to have kids. She has a thriving and deeply meaningful career and a partner to whom she is committed and it sounds like she’s leaning towards not having them, at least not now (which is maybe to say never). She is wise and self-possessed and though our paths are different I feel connected to her in sensing that we’re both on the path that’s right for us. But that phrase – whether or not one “wants kids” stayed with me in the days after our conversation. I always spoke of it that way: that I “wanted kids.” And that I “wanted a tenure-track job” and that I “wanted a PhD” too. But those notions, the ones about “having,” are starting to feel a little Not Quite It to me. So I’m trying now to think of these decisions in terms of verbs and not nouns. Not that I “want a big family with lots of kids,” for example, but that I “want to mother several children.” I want the work of that. To Be a Mother. To Be a Wife. To Be and Daughter and a Friend. Here’s how I see this shift functioning: if I “want a child,” or “want more children,” then it puts expectations on the people who come into my life to fill that role. I have certain expectations of who and what it is that I want. Same thing about wanting a wife, which is like wanting a possession, which implies a kind of ownership over how the person who fills that role behaves and who she is. But if I want “To Be a Mother “and “To Be a Wife,” then it’s about me. Because the verb, the action, is all mine. It takes the pressure off of my existing children and my wife and my (hopefully) future kids to be any particular way. In choosing to mother (the verb), I am choosing to subordinate myself to the work of motherhood. To give what it asks of me because I chose the work. To surrender to what it brings – which can’t be known – because I chose it. I chose to mother. I chose to be a wife. I chose not to pursue a prestigious career because what that would ask of me is not, for me, on the table. I like thinking about it this way, thinking about who I want to be and what I want to do and not what I want to have. Because the motions our bodies make every day – our movements – those things are what create us, right? It is rubbing my child’s back and singing to him when he wakes up at 2am that makes me a mother, not anything at all about the person whose back I’m rubbing. NGPhood has been a great teacher of this gorgeous fact, freeing me from expectations that could have otherwise stopped me from seeing my children as they are and not as versions of me. Anyway: what to be. Those are my news questions.

But enough of that because: oh these people whose backs I rub!

Lou is five months old already. He is barrel rolling and talking up a storm. Seriously: this baby loves the sound of his voice, as do his moms and brother. We’re all pretty sure he’s a screech owl. He remains laid back, but he has a funny temper. He’ll be in the best of spirits and then bam: mad on you. Really, don’t try taking a rattle from him. Consider yourself warned. But oh: he laughs. He laughs with his belly and his heart. And he loves his brother like nobody’s business. He loves us too, but Bram is a God to him. And for the most part, B reciprocates. I am stunned by how much they have already become brothers. So, time is flying by; I mean, our Bird is almost half of a year which is itself halfway to two. This morning I looked at him and saw that he had grown. He does things and I miss them. He is perfect and I love him fiercely for being my second child, and for teaching me what that means (hint: it has a lot to do with honesty and letting go of perfection).

And Bram. We got the most generous scholarship package from the Montessori School near us and we accepted. This means that at the end of October, our little boy will go to preschool three hours a day, five days a week. Preschool, y’all. Sometimes I cry from the heartbreak of not having him with me fifteen hours each week. Like, all school year. Other times I cry with worry. Because: that’s school, man. That’s school and he’s just a little boy, surely, still. And other times I cry with pride because: he is so ready for this. I do know that. The calm, quiet, focused work space. The rituals. The gently guided independence. The social interaction that is not loud and chaotic but kind and communal. Montessori is right for the person he is and the family we are. But still: there’s a lot of crying, and almost none of it is the toddler.

So that’s all. We’re eating all the tomatoes and getting ready for pumpkin patches. We’re listening to Ages and Ages. We’re mostly thriving. Love to you all as you meet this new season. Autumn. For me it’s the sweetest.

10609433_10152562914097870_6242727026281938877_n

 

10440802_10152562914107870_6917230164654408230_n

 

10635729_10152559411402870_5468560481409428729_n

the No-Love List of 2014

I’ve had some interesting thoughts about parenthood lately. I will share them here soon and they might be of service.

THIS post, though, is not that. Y’all have read my Love Lists before, right? You know I’m the gratitude-filled Pollyanna type? So I don’t have to be that way now? Because what I’m feeling is a No-Love List. Please tune out now if you only like me for my bright side ways. 

1. People who ring my doorbell multiple times during Bram’s nap. Ring it and HOLD IT. Ring it as if they are bleeding and only I can save them. Ring it not to be saved, but to sell me something. Trust me, evil door-ringers. You don’t want me to answer the door. I practice gentle parenting, which means that even if you manage not to wake my children up I will come at you with all the anger and frustration that I manage, somehow, to suppress during my two-and-a-half year-old’s many meltdowns. Save yourselves. Move on down the road.   

2. When my toddler wastes food. Food is a big deal to me. We buy it from farmers. From our co-op. We spend a lot of time thinking about it and planning for it. We spend WAY MORE MONEY than we possibly have on it, so important do we believe it to be. I spend hours preparing it: almost everything from single ingredients, working to teach Bram in his Learning Tower, paying attention to smells and sights and textures. So when my child decides, as he did today, to smear pesto risotto all over the table and floor (with glee), I am angry. It is a button for me. Don’t waste this food. It will not engender kindness. To wit: today, in one of my lowest parenting moments of all time, I did something petty. I asked Bram to put all of the smeared risotto back on his plate, and when he refused, I ate (with glee) one of the all-fruit rolls he’d chosen as a treat from the farmers market last weekend. I was almost giddy with the revenge of it. He, of course, lost his shit. I gave him the last bite in a moment of parental defeat.   

3. Our cat Iris. Who I should love, so kind is she to my babies. But Gods Help Me, she is high needs in a house that is full of high needs and where too few of those needs are mine. For starters, we recently learned that Bram is highly allergic. And in ongoing-battle-news, her litter must be scooped seventeen times a day to keep her from peeing everywhere. This – for the mama who has two potties to regularly dump, and cloth diapers to constantly change and wash, and a big toilet to occasionally clean – is maddening. Add to that the fact that she is enormous and insists on sleeping ON ME even when at least one and sometimes two children are already there and you’ve got some resentments brewing. Which are followed immediately, of course, by guilt. Because who doesn’t love their cat? I am worse than people who ring doorbells during nap-time.  

4. This job market climate. J is having a tough time and she would be a catch for any of the jobs she’s applied for and it is hard. I can only imagine (and shudder at) what this must be like for families who’ve been laid off. At least we’re treading water. Still. No love for this job climate.  

5. That even now, a year later, I can’t walk down the stairs without remembering the fall. Pretty much every time. And I walk down the stairs a lot. Carrying things – people, laundry, things – a lot. Spatial trauma, friends. I would say it’s for the birds if I didn’t like birds so much.     

6. Drivers who use our street as a cut through and therefore drive about seventy miles an hour past my house. THERE ARE CHILDREN HERE I shout after them as if they possibly care about the nearing-middle-age, unshowered, Crazyville mom they (maybe) glimpse in their rear-view mirror. But slow the hell down, people. Jesus. You’re worse than people who wish their cats away.   

7. The miles between me and some of the people I love with whom I am desperate to share coffee or wine or movie dates. 

8. Yard work. I hate yard work. Seriously, if you live near me and you like yard work: want to trade? I will come clean your house top to bottom every other week if you will come pull these weeds. Or edge. Or something. Just: you come be outside and I’ll come Monica Geller the hell out of your house. Takers?

9. Not being alone with J. I miss her. Or I think I do. We’re coming up on five months without leaving the Bird and it’s getting hard. I’d like to look at my wife. Even when she annoys me I like the look of her. 

10. The news. Always, but right now. I just can’t even. Not and stay present for these little people.  

Pollyanna Epilogue: Bram woke up from nap early as I was beginning to draft this today. He was crying; we’ve been having lots of bad dreams lately. Lou was sleeping on me while I wrote, so he got dragged upstairs and somehow stayed asleep. He somehow stayed asleep when I came back down too, by the way, because he is a saint-baby. Anyway, through his hysteria I finally discerned that Bram wanted “Pomo’s Game” to help calm him down, which means that he wanted me to name his body parts one by one while he tightened all the muscles in them and then relaxed them. Feet, then legs, then belly, then arms. Little meditative soul. Then he took three deep breaths. Really, he counted them. Then I started to sing and he started to cry. “What’s wrong now, Bug?” “I wanted to yawp!!,” our child cries. Seriously, he wanted to do a few of Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp[s].” So we did. We yawped. Four times each. Then he said, “I want ‘Graceland’ now.” Which means Paul Simon. That kid. He’ll knock the No-Love List right out of you. 

the serenity to accept

I have a friend whose daughter is sick. Someday she will need a transplant.

I have an acquaintance, a professor I worked for once, who has to have brain surgery in a few days. She’s the single parent of a little girl.

Tonight I read a story for a class I’m teaching. The class is online, and the reading schedule is set by someone who is not me. Because I am behind, I didn’t read this story before my students had to write about it. It is about a toddler who is killed by a pot of boiling water that he pulls down onto himself. It is very imagistic. I am leveled by the single page I read. I am crushed that because I was not more on top of things, others have these same images in their heads. This includes a student who lost her toddler years ago. I did not warn her because I did not read ahead.

Like every parent before me, I have no fucking idea how to live with the vulnerability of parenthood. Something could happen to my children. On my watch or not. It’s a kind of death every time I let myself know this. It is suffocating.

There’s no lightness here tonight, folks. Just a quiet house and an unquiet mind.

on not being her

We were going through photos the other day looking for evidence of a four-month-old Bram to show him that he used to be his brother’s size. That he once wore these clothes. That it was once thrilling merely that he could roll over.

And I noticed this picture of me.

My beautiful picture

I remember this night. We were leaving for one of the last meetings of our natural childbirth class. I had J take this photo to document these new boots, but as it turns out it’s one of the last photos I have of myself before Bram. Which is to say: before children. Which – notwithstanding EE’s powerful influence over my life – is to say: before motherhood.

We had a little gathering at our house the other day to celebrate an old friend coming back for a visit. A handful of friends from graduate school, professors and fellow students. It was wonderful to see everyone. To learn of their successes, to hear the sharp, smart chatter of academics again. But: I felt out of step. For one thing, my kiddos were here. And it was dinnertime. And then of course bedtime. And I’m not sure if B has ever seen so many people in our living room before. And I felt this expectation – not put on me by my friends, to be clear, but put on me by myself – to try to be pre-kid R. But of course: that wasn’t possible. There was so much to navigate. And even if there wasn’t, I’m not her. It was disorienting. It was a little like having forgotten a language that you used to speak fluently. I felt the significance of my choices – to (mostly) leave academia; to embrace a particular kind of parenthood – more in those hours than I think I have to date. I have no idea how my friends perceived me, but I know that I felt awkward and unintelligible. I thought I could slip back into being that woman up there. I couldn’t.

And that got me thinking about how exactly I’ve changed. What the woman I am today would think of the woman I was just three years back. What she would think of me. Do you ever wonder that about two versions of yourself?

We share plenty of traits, of course. Both versions of me are passionate. Fiercely loyal (though to some different people and priorities now). Committed to growth. Grateful. Appreciative of kindness. And also critical. Exacting. Expecting too much.

But that me was so put together. Or at least I remember her that way. Make-up every day. Hair dyed the perfect[ed] shade of red. Body toned from an adulthood-long commitment to exercise. Clothes selected thoughtfully and artistically.

She was also interesting. Like, I remember stringing together really smart, compelling sentences on the spot when talking about Brilliant Works of Literature. That version of me could teach a class that would knock your socks off. She had an intensity that was, for at least some people, magnetic.

And she was also anxious. She would wake up at 1am to pee and recall something she’d said and worry it to death. Which is funny because that version of me said the right thing way more often than this one does.

I feel proud of that pre-kid me, and able to appreciate her in ways that I couldn’t when I was her. And that’s really cool. But I don’t feel too much like her these days.

Sometimes there’s a self-consciousness that comes along with that. Like when someone takes a picture that features my matronly upper arms (phrase credit: the genius Janeane Garofalo). Or when I hang out with my witty academic friends and feel like I can’t find my footing. Or when I think about the cool scholarly stuff my cohort is doing and I sense it getting away from me and I fear regret.

But I like this version of me in a way I never liked that one when I was busy being her. And that’s cool too. Some of it is no doubt just growing up. As Ani says, “If you’re not getting happier as you get older, you’re fucking up.” And some of it is probably just being too tired to notice all the imperfections. But some of it, I think, is a product of the fact that (as a few friends have said over the last couple of years, much to my immense joy) motherhood suits me.

So –  in honor of the work I hope all women, all people, are doing – here’s a list of some of my favorite things about this version of myself. I’d love to see yours. Or if you don’t show me, I hope you’ll at least write one.

  • I’ve lost the high femme yet I feel more feminine than ever. With a baby on my hip and a toddler at my knee. In no make-up (except red lip gloss because some things should never be abandoned). And hair that’s too thin to grow long but I’m doing it anyway. And Good Will skirts and hand me down shirts that always smell sweated in because it’s been 2.5 years since I washed our clothes in anything but basically lavender water. Even though sometimes the afternoon still finds me in the boxer shorts and t-shirt I slept in the night before. And though my haphazard exercise routine has allowed things to soften. Still. So feminine. It is cool. It makes me regret all those years (and all that money!) I spent on Stuff That Was Supposed To Make Me Feel Like a Woman.
  • I’m a lot less worried about messing up. Of course I still feel icky when I say the wrong thing. Drop balls. Miss deadlines. Hurt people. Mishandle something. But I’m also more forgiving of myself. I was a perfectionist. 4.0 graduate career. I would have been crushed by a “B.” Criticism stung. Now I’m learning how to hear it. Because: yes. I am deeply flawed. I mean, I regularly mishandle things. But I am trying with love. And I believe in kindness.
  • I am learning how to be in the moment. Or more truthfully, my kids are teaching me how to be. Because little kids live there. So to live with (really with) little kids, you have to live there too. And I do this more and more. Today I even napped. And woke up happy because it was okay that missed some hours in the day. Some housework. And when I came back up the stairs from switching the laundry, I could smell the Bergamot in the tea I was brewing and it brought the biggest smile to my face. It was enough. And the quinoa and roasted carrot salad I made last night might have been the most richly pleasurable thing I’ve ever made because I took the time to notice the indulgent color of the spices coming together, and the smell of the roasting vegetables, and the crispness of the cabbage as my knife sliced through it. The moment. It’s nice.
  • I’m learning how little I really need. Pre-kid me had ambitions. Like, you know, for an impressive career, and a bigger house, and the kind of dress and boot collection that someone might envy. And maybe a car of my own. Even post-kid me has longed for these things. But the further into this I go, the more confident I am that most of that stuff is a distraction. We were at a party a few weeks back and someone said they couldn’t have more kids (they have two) because they couldn’t afford them. The camps, they said, and the lessons. Things just don’t look that way to me, and I’m glad. I think having less (but still, to be sure, having enough) has been good for me. None of the things that have brought me the most joy have cost anything. Or maybe the price of a deck of cards or a new toddler puzzle. Bram thinks our backyard is a freaking paradise. Louis has dimples when he smiles really deeply. We have some really good books. We are super rich.

 

inside

When I was in my first year of graduate school, two of my friends had a debate about the difference between being proud and being prideful. It was one of those pedantic arguments early (and sometimes seasoned) scholars have, but it comes in handy as a frame for me from time to time. These last couple of weeks, I’ve used it in thinking about the relationship between motherhood and judgement. I say motherhood not because I think there’s something uniquely primary about parenthood in the feminine, but because there does seem to be something about motherhood that draws out insecurity and judgment. And lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how sad that is and how much we’re losing because of it.

A few months back, a close mom friend posted something to Facebook about the judgement working moms face from stay at home moms. And I remember wondering if I had contributed to this friend feeling judged. And the truth, awful as it is, is that I probably have. Because I am proud of being home with my kids. And so I am vocal. But am I proud or am I prideful? Because there is a difference, right? I hear the difference as this:

I could be proud of something I make sacrifices for and work hard to accomplish or I could pridefully use the fact of that something to feel better about myself.

In the case of being home, it’s mostly the former. But sometimes, sometimes, I know it’s the latter. Which is awful. And which is true. And which, this feels important to say, is a product of all the ways in which I feel not better but less than.

That particular mom gave birth to both of her gorgeous babies at home. She nursed her oldest until she self-weaned, and will no doubt do the same with her youngest. She is a mama-force. Those things make me insecure because my body failed at making babies. And because though I am fiercely devoted to my boys being breastfed, I will never be the one to breastfeed them. But those are points of pride for my friend. And they should be. They are markers of her strength. She is fierce and brave and maternal and beautiful and she should be proud. And – though this isn’t always easy to remember – none of that has anything to do with me.

Another friend and I were talking yesterday about the idea that in being an advocate for breastfeeding, one runs the risk of shaming women who didn’t or don’t. But how, my friend asked, can we avoid shaming while still criticizing the formula industry for convincing women in developing nations that formula is best even when their water supply is unsafe? How might we educate women – work against the decades.old.but.still.prevalent belief that formula is best or just as good – without shaming them for choosing against the breast (or for using formula when for circumstantial reasons the choice wasn’t available to them)? How can breastfeeding moms be proud without being prideful. And how can non-nursing moms hear that pride without feeling shame.

As parents and as people, we all have strengths and weaknesses. I am proud to be home with my babies (a privilege, I know, but also a sacrifice [of money, of a tenure-track career]). I’m proud that we co-sleep, and never yell or use physical discipline, and have never let our children cry it out. I’m proud that J does extended breastfeeding. I feel good about the fact that we eat the way we do, and don’t have a television, and are active. These things matter to me or I wouldn’t do them because they are all a lot of work.

But where I give my kids wonderful amounts of routine, I am not skilled at spontaneity. The spirited, wild, loud, messy, blast of a childhood that some kids have is not in the cards for these boys because neither J nor I would know how to foster it. Though I’m good at organized walks, Bram has to convince me to take him into the backyard because, well, it’s really outdoorsy out there. And frankly dirty. He’s already showing an interest in catching bugs and I am really, really, really not interested in doing that. I also show similar over-analyzing and over-explaining tendencies to Paul Isaacson from E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, and let’s just say that doesn’t turn out well for his kids.

These are only a few of my limitations as a person and a parent. But this is where I think the judgement&insecurity trope gets especially dangerous. Because I could learn to be outside. Maybe even to enjoy it if I had the right teacher. And what I can’t learn my children can get from other people. Because J and I are not enough for them. If I have any hope of not just seeing my own limitations reflected in them, I need and want a village. But a village can only thrive if our defenses are down. And those defenses run deep. So lately I’ve been wondering if it’s possible that the whole awful Mommy War crisis might really just be an inside job.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say I’m at my library’s storytime and I’m giving Louis a bottle (of pumped milk, of course, but no strangers who see us know this). And a mama who probably gave birth to her children in a yurt and nursed until they self-weaned at six comes in and gives me what I perceive as the old judgy eye for being such a failure as to give my kids formula. I take all of this in in a second: her long flowy skirt and her long flowy hair. The fact that her children have never had a haircut and probably only bathe one a week. All of these facts of her feel like implicit judgements of me. And I admire her. I sound mocking here, but the truth is: I’m jealous. She and her children are clearly one with the universe and my children and I are awkward and out of step. And so what I perceive as her judgement about my bottle feeding is loaded already. But the truth is, maybe she hasn’t even really looked at me. She does have all these free-range children tugging at her hemp skirt; she is busy with her own stuff. But I am judging me because not breastfeeding my own children is a source of shame for me. So I put that on her. Because even worst case scenario – even if she took note of my bottle and assumed it was formula and felt better about herself at my expense – her judgement is not about me. What it is about is all the stuff that got lost in my appraisal of her wild, earthy beauty. Which is to say: all the stuff that makes her feel like a failure. All the stuff she might even think I’m doing better. But all of that becomes invisible the second I take her personally. The second I use her glance as a chance to revisit my own shame.

And the second I do that I make it impossible for her to be a part of my village. My children will never get filthy beyond my comfort zone playing with the goats outside her yurt, which is my loss, and theirs. And her children will never benefit from whatever strength I might have that they lack. Judgement kills the village. But in this case, the judgements were all mine. I will never even know what she really thought when she saw me.

So this is what I’m thinking lately. That it’s maybe sort of kind of possible to end the Mommy Wars just that simply. That it’s an entirely inside job. Because whatever her judgements are or aren’t, I get to decide whether or not to take them personally. And whether to listen past the look or the words that feel judgmental to hear what insecurities she might be propping up in herself. And whether to respond with openness to what she might be getting right, or to shut it down because I’m threatened. Whether to take her strengths as implicit judgements of my weaknesses or as invitations to grow and investigate and rely on others.

I love women. I trust women and I love them. This feeling of competition amongst women has always confused me. But as a mother, it feels especially dangerous. It’s an impossible utopia, I know, but isn’t it nice to dream of a community where kindness – to ourselves and to each other – takes over the spaces where we’ve let insecurity grow? I would like to think of the power I see in other women as interesting and admirable – and maybe even as an invitation – instead of as a threat to my own.

This photo was taken by another mom friend at a party last weekend. There are probably plenty of things that the mom who took this perceives as personal failures, but I am in awe of her. And when she looks at my family, this is what she sees. She doesn’t see all of my limitations, she sees this. Do you see what I mean?

10418204_10152486130017870_7667830816054240976_n

 

 

two and a whole entire half

That’s how old Abram Adrien is. Two and a whole entire half. And Louis will be four months in a handful of days. That’s a third of a year. Seriously. I just counted the months to be sure that math is solid and it is. So my children are growing and – like every other parent in the world – I find this baffling. Here’s a quick update on what this moment looks like.

Bram: This kid changes every day. He is obsessed with “machines”: he watches for real ones out in the world, builds complex, towering ones out of Duplos, creates them with his Imaginets set, and draws them with thick, bold, heavy magic marker strokes. “This is a toucan leaver. It leaves toucans alone.” “This is a grass picker. It picks grass.” The one below “is a cherry picker. It’s helping to build this building.”*

10446718_10152411930747870_1890319379002123808_n

There are a thousand machines and they do things that clearly need doing. You know, like leaving birds alone. When he made this machine:

10415620_10152443260857870_2647234431696451140_n

we had this conversation:

Me: What is it?
B: A machine I’ve never seen before.
Me: Cool! What does it do?
B: It picks up cash.
Me: What is cash?
B: A kind of money.
Me: Okay. Can I have one of those machines?
B: Yes!
Me: How much cash will it pick up for me?
B: Five.
Me: Five what?
B: Five monies.

He’s also still recovering from his first stomach bug. This was hell, of course. It started on my birthday (literally: at midnight on my birthday). He vomited On Me for Two Straight Days. Then it came in other ways. He ate almost nothing for the best part of a week. On one of his first nights in the clear, I woke up at midnight to a gagging sound coming from his room. I ran in to find him on his knees leaning against his bed spitting saliva out as if he were vomiting. It has been almost as crushing to watch him process this as it was to watch him suffer from it. As my dear friend MH said, this was when Bram learned that his body can betray him. Oh that lesson, my Bug. You’ll keep learning that one. Even now, when he needs to go to the potty he panics a little and says, “I’m still sick!” It will just about break your heart.

Still, two-and-a-half finds him a bright-eyed, music-loving (he can seriously memorize a song just by hearing it twice), sucessfully-pottying, funny (he says “I am cracking myself up!”), firefly-obsessed, puzzle-mastering, happy, affectionate little boy.

10516684_850052592805_3355957668310584963_n

10534253_10152460242942870_72635888499091477_n

Little Louis seems also to be thriving. He is still so quick to smile, though he’s stingy with the laughs. He could watch Bram till the sun goes down and he loves (snugs, flirts, nestles) with the abandon of a content four-month-old being. His eyes are so big I’m almost sure his donor was an owl, so we call him Birdie a lot. He is calm but loud as a screech owl when he’s hungry. He’s in the ninth percentile for weight now because my wife is a powerfully devoted pomo. He’s rolling over and grasping things and doing all the stuff that I thought would fail to thrill me this time around but which is just (or at least almost) as delightful. And he’s getting his very first tiny bit of pudge. I have fat baby hopes again, and I am in love.

10537837_848247250725_8574004087803973970_n

10491246_10152445452552870_2040762650197054681_n

For my part, it’s been nice being off-line. If I’m not flying through books again, I’m at least walking with purpose. I am lonesome, but in a way that feels tolerable and interesting and honest. It’s been an emotional couple of weeks (among other things, we sent our beloved friend and sitter Grace off to Cambodia for ten months, which is a great loss), but I’m finding myself deeply engaged and committed to serenity, which is not a concept I’ve thought a lot about in the past. My world feels quieter, more still, more finite, and so there’s been more time in my head. I’m struggling some with what I guess I would describe as a heightened sense of my own failures (though not in a way that feels critical, exactly; more in a way that feels observant). I find friendship a little baffling right now. I feel not quite smart enough, not quite kind enough (despite my best intentions), not quite on the same page as most people.

We were on a walk a couple of days ago with one of our very favorite families, and my very favorite five-year-old, who knows us well and is extremely intelligent, said out of the blue, “J should be Bram’s mama and you should be his pomo because she is his mom.” His mom and I explained that parents get to pick their parental moniker. Later I realized we missed it. I should have said that you don’t have to give birth to be a mom. Because that’s what was tripping him up. That was the question beneath his question. This is how I feel a lot of the time: like I get close to handling things well, but I fall always just a little bit short. Or, on bad days, more short than that. I drop so many balls (but so far no babies). I hurt people without meaning to. I try to explain myself and fail. I’m not sure whether the goal is to strive harder or make peace with the Good Enough.

But alongside my failures, there’s so much fresh basil in my kitchen, and my joyful mom was here on Thursday. The boys’ Aunt Madeline came yesterday and Bram is Mad-Mad-Madly in Love with her. We took Bram to his first baseball game yesterday with some really great friends, and I think we made it through four innings before he felt too overwhelmed to stay. This morning, I walked to get coffee with the boys (Lou is finally really digging being on my back) and then Bram and I shelled pistachios for pesto and peas for paella, and he sorted shell from nut and vegetable so lovingly it made my heart ache (though he ate as many pistachios as he put in the bowl, of course, so it took a hundred hours). We’ve been invited to a pool party this afternoon and another summer gathering tomorrow. The livin’ ain’t exactly easy, but it is (in my dad’s linguistic style) good good.

1902965_851378889895_4917546692872351463_n

10494646_846673709115_8909306433191381340_n

1907409_851378894885_607101504653515602_n

66150_10152462671262870_2537118952661495899_n

* Speaking of cherry pickers, they’re doing some construction at the school near the playground in our neighborhood, so they’ve had crane trucks there for weeks. A few weekends back, we took a walk and found the construction site abandoned and one of the cherry pickers low to the ground. Being my parents’ child, I set Bram in it. Because if you’re Bram that’s pretty much amazing. Then he had an accident. He peed in the cherry picker. A lot. But because the universe is sometimes kind, it immediately started to storm. One of the dear friends we were walking with even had to run home for the car because the rain was too intense to walk in. The cherry picker was old anyway. And by Monday morning, I’m sure the urine was all washed away. What I’m not sure of is whether or not J will ever let me live this story down.

reconceiving indulgence

So one thing about early parenthood: it’s not indulgent. The things we – or at least I – have thought of my whole life as sources of pleasure are either absent or rare. For me, this list includes:

  • sleeping long, interrupted stretches (like through the night. and in in the morning.)
  • spontaneous trips to the movie theater
  • discovering new foodie restaurants, preferably with a friend or two
  • Netflix marathons on rainy weekends
  • long baths with a good book and a glass of wine
  • casual day trips to big, close-by cities
  • hours and hours and hours of coffee shop reading

There’s little space for these pleasures now. And I find – two and a half years in – that I’ve compensated for their absence in ways I’m not wild about.

Because I miss Netflix marathons, I cram in an episode at night when I’d be better served by reading, or even by sleeping. Almost on principle. Because I “deserve” to relax.

Because I don’t get dinner out with friends, or many movie dates, or almost any day trips, I check Facebook fifteen times a day. Craving intimacy. Stimulation. Relaxation.

I think I’m trying to replicate the sense of adult connection that I lack, but the truth is, these things don’t fulfill the part of me that craves indulgence. They don’t make me feel like I’ve spend a rainy day in bed with my wife. They just make me feel more tired. Less whole. Less me. Less spiritual. They are poor substitutes.

I think I’ve used the fact that we’re pretty good at this stuff when it comes to the kids (at the being mostly-present with them, at the no-screen-time, at simplicity-unconditional-attachy parenting) to justify the passive indulgences I permit myself, and that’s allowed those indulgences to remain the things that feel like indulgences.

But that leaves me feeling deprived a lot of the time. Because if it takes going out for drinks, or sleeping in, or binge watching Orange is the New Black to feel like I’m being indulgent, then what is staying home for bathtime and a full hour of bedtime books? What is getting out of bed fast at 6am so your toddler makes it to the potty on time? Deprivation, right?

But of course: no.

Because singing one more Josh Ritter song with Bram’s small body pressed tightly against mine, hearing him ask me to “get fairies” out of his ears, smelling his clean hair, the skin on the back of his neck, feeling his small fingers seek out my hand or my face.

Because wearing Louis through one more nap, the weight of him against my chest and heart, the new milk smell, the kitten-like movements of new muscles stretching beneath soft, snug fabric.

All of this. This is as good as it gets. The undiluted sensory life of parenthood. There is nothing more of the body. Touch and sight and smell. Stretching limbs. Warm skin. And yet. By the seventh song near-whispered in Bram’s darkening room, I want out. I want the cheap checkout. Though the cheap checkout won’t even matter by tomorrow and his small body in that darkening room will matter for as long as I live.

So I’m trying something new. I’m trying to redefine what I perceive as pleasure. What I notice. What makes me feel indulgent. To take Cheap and Easy off the table so that I don’t count away the hours and the minutes of the Really Sensory and Really Intimate and Really Love.

The biggest thing I’ve given up is the internet (including and especially Facebook and excluding only what I need to teach and this blog, the latter because writing is a real pleasure, and because this record matters to me) except on Sundays. Now the computer stays put away. In addition to being UNcybered, this means that instead of iTunes playlists and Pandora, I’m playing our long-neglected CDs. The same songs by the same artist in the same order I’ve heard them in before, for some sixty-five minutes at a stretch. It also means that if I think of something I want to know, I have to write it down and look it up later: I can’t run away to Google Things. And it means a return to cookbooks over internet recipes. I’m also giving up my smart phone. This means, by the way, that I need a clock on the ground floor. Because with no technology, it could pretty much be any time of the day. :)

My hope is that in abandoning some of the faux-indulgences that really mostly leave me feeling empty (aside from the deep sisterly friendships that I believe will develop with even more authenticity if turned over to phones and voices and visits), I’ll do a better job of reveling in the pleasures that are real and huge and come free with this parenting gig. Some of these already happen everyday and just need to be noticed more. Others aren’t happening, but should be. These include, for me:

  • The bodily pleasures described above, and so many more. The belly laugh of the toddler. The wet sound of new baby smiles. The first “mama,” and the thousandth. The warm skin. The weight of babies in my lap and the feel of baby book pages between my fingers. The rich, deep, fleeting, overwhelmingly sensory pleasures of my children as children.
  • Eye contact. Seeing my wife and not a screen during the twenty-five minutes that I somehow maybe get her all to myself.
  • Games. Because we used to play cards or Backgammon and listen to music once the dishes were done. J would drink tea and I would drink wine. Those were good nights. Now I’m not sure I even remember the rules to Backgammon. So: games.
  • Getting to bed earlier and having the energy to read more than three pages before falling asleep. Because reading. Reading.
  • Just sitting and watching my family. Or the rain outside the window with my family. I’ve rarely been “on the computer around Bram,” but I have kept it on in the kitchen, and when he’s playing quietly, I squirrel away in there and zone out via the internet. Instead, I’d rather just be still. Or make some tea. Or even do something productive.
  • Bram’s books. Because they’re getting so much more complex and therefore pleasurable. We’ve always been big, big readers together, but now I’m really diving into the narratives of his books and it is cool. I want to notice.
  • The rituals of brewing coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon. Of peeling fruit and watering flowers. The slow, messy pleasure of “mixing an apple pancake batter” (Voyage to the Bunny Planet) with Bram on Sunday mornings. Being in these moments because there’s nothing more indulgent that I could be doing.

So I started this on my birthday last Thursday, and I plan to keep it up until my birthday next year. I’m sure it will evolve. And I have no predictions for what it will yield. I just want to shake the sense that I’m being deprived of something. Because so much of this life I’m living is pleasure, it’s just work too. Which must surely be a sweeter kind of pleasure, right? We’ll see.