sometimes you just sort of lose your shit

So a thing about stay-at-home parenthood is, there’s no time to process. You can feel all sorts of ways, but you pretty much have to keep it together because of the tiny humans. So when J found out yesterday that, though she was their top choice, she didn’t get the job (because they’re not filling it right now), we muddled through with a smaller reaction than our disappointment warranted. Because of the tiny humans.

Enter: my office hours today. Which, because my children were not with me, and because (thankfully) no one came, I cried straight through.

And enter: my wretched listening skills when a friend came out to me and I focused instead on why she isn’t out to her parents. (You know: instead of saying “Yay! Yay for the gay!!”)

And enter: an absolute bitter-fest of a text exchange with a wildly patient friend about how much injustice there is in this country and how unfair unfair unfair things feel some times.

And So Much Crying for the one tiny hour when my babies were both asleep (even if one was asleep on me).

And when my mom said, “well of course you’re upset, baby, you’ve probably been really holding it together for J!” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry more because: um. I hadn’t. Poor J.

Then I took the boys to watch a construction site near J’s work. We’ve been watching it for over a year and it’s nearly complete. And it’s going to house something that really should change the world but really won’t change the world. But those construction workers did change the world because: there was no building there and now there’s a building. And stairs. And sidewalks. And interesting ones at that. And it was sunny but autumnal. And I remembered that I’m not classist and therefore don’t have to lose my shit if we stay broke awhile longer or if neither of us ever ends up with a fancy job. And I thought: B could grow up to be a construction worker and really make things and that would be AMAZING. And in between feeling like an ass for being such a crazy lady with my friends all day, I felt SO GRATEFUL that I don’t feel that way most of the time. Entitled. Deprived. Wronged. Because even though there’s plenty about what I was feeling that’s true, feeling it wasn’t helping.

What did help was all the chalk art we did on the sidewalk near the construction site when J got off work.

And the college kid who played his harmonica for B.

And the fact that my friends will probably forgive me.

And when J insisted we go out for tacos instead of home to cook.

And when Ages and Ages’ “Divisionary” came on at the taco place and I asked them to turn it up and they did. And when B heard it his face made clear his utter believe that the world is MAGICAL.

And it is. It’s unjust too, and it’s unfair as hell, but people build buildings where there didn’t used to be buildings. It’s magical.

She still should have gotten the job.

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(Also magical: the Bluebird in this Gayby rainbow romper passed down to us from the moms over at Insert Metaphor. Which is to say also magical: GAYBIES!)

equal parts feathers and razor blades

Once upon a time, in a post written just over four years ago, a future mama and a future pomo were waiting to learn if their third attempt at conception had been successful. And that future mama vowed that despite her instinctive resistance to hope – despite her clung-to-like-a-security-blanket conviction that it was better not to get too attached to something until you knew you really had it – she was going to just believe in that baby. Heart on the line. The whole thing.

And of course there was no baby. And when a baby started to grow the next month, that future mama and that future pomo just believed in her. Hearts on the line. The whole thing. And when that tiny still being came, they learned some things about hope.

We are not the humans we were four years ago, when I first sat down and wrote this post as an invitation to a new way of living. For one thing – despite naming the blog – I only grasped the “blossom” piece back then. The “breaking” part took time to learn about. And I know a lot more about those ponies now. And the peaches. I know how momentary that light breeze is, and how important it is to have breathed in so you can remember the smell when it’s gone. At least remember.

My feelings about hope are trickier now. It makes me queasy. It brings up ghosts. I still believe in the value of the vulnerability it demands. The honesty of the fall. Its centrality to real-live life. But believing in and inviting are whole oceans apart from one another.

All of which is to say that we’re waiting for news on a job that could make a real difference to us. Not a baby this time, but another kind of new way of life. We have been waiting for about three weeks. And the waiting is hard. And so – instead of deciding to feel one way or another about it – I thought I’d reach out a little so the waiting could be less lonely. And I thought I’d write a small love list so that the waiting doesn’t appear more powerful than even it is.

So: Waiting In Love. September 2014. Happy four years to Breaking Into Blossom, by the way. Thanks for helping to make this space safe for both the breaking parts and the blossoming. What gifts: this space and these years.

1. That right now our Bluebird (who is cutting his first two teeth and cannot, therefore, be put even momentarily down, and is, therefore, sleeping on my chest, justifying my writing of this blog post when there are quizzes to grade) is wearing the corduroy bib overalls that my dad bought Bram when he was just a tiny Bug. They are softer with wear. And my dad once held them.

2. That Bram sees everything now. Every Little Thing: numbers, letters, engineering concerns, narratives, rhymes and stories and rhythms. He has memorized all the words to Ages and Ages “Divisionary,” and he sings them (including “diligently” and “irrelevant” with more heart than can possibly even fit in that kid body of his. He is approaching Three and Awake and So Present with a speed that is as dizzying as it is sweet. I could listen and watch forever.

3. That my mom came this week, comes most weeks, bought us a new steamer because our old one (which she bought) stopped steaming and we spend a lot of time on our otherwise dirty ole’ floor.

4. That there’s a new pizza place in town that is almost – if you squint your eyes and open your heart – as good as my beloved Charleston EVO. And that this one has GF crust and vegan cheese. And that consequently, B ate his first not.made.by.us pizza today. With olives and pineapple (to my basil and more basil and fresh-pulled mozzarella and J’s All The Ingredients).

5. That three of our overgrown flower beds are now weed-free and Creeping Myrtle-full. Creeping Myrtle, which I’m told would take something atomic to kill. Yes ma’am; that’s my kind of ground cover.

6. That the air smells like autumn and the sweaters are out.

7. That the boys’ Aunt Laura is coming for a visit next Saturday. Will have lunch with us. Will probably read a nap-time story to her nephews. Will make us feel even better about life.

8. That dearest friends sent us Isa Does It by the brilliant vegan Isa Chandra Moskowitz, and that I’ve made some twenty-five things already and am in love with nearly all of them (and her writing, and her photographs, and the divinity of her cooking, and her lack of fear of salt).

9. That other friends are due any week now with their first son, and that, if I ever finish it, that baby’s non-gestation mama will get the kind of letter and care package I would have loved to receive as I grappled with my fears before Bram slipped into my hands.

10. That I am here. Living this. All of this. Even when hope is equal parts feathers and razor blades.

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.

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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?

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