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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7 thoughts on “to be verbs

  1. Ah so brilliant, fascinating, thought provoking. Thank you.
    I think your idea to do one class and make it amazing for your students is a good plan and can only be good for your career (and desire to give those students your best), that way you keep a hand in, so to speak, and will surely get rave reviews. Rather than trying to do a few classes each year over the next few years and potentially only doing a mediocre or inconsistent job with each.
    Montessori does sound perfect for your son, I love their teaching style and philosophies.
    Finally – oh my – your boys. So beautiful.

  2. The baby has such eyes!

    I’m glad that your boys are growing well. Life would be so much easier if there weren’t all the pesky financial stuff always looming about.

  3. I’ve been saving this post to read during a quiet moment, and what a gift. I love your thoughts on the “to be” verbs. At once an utterly present approach, but also freeing. It’s funny, our paths are different right now, yet I always feel so understood when I hear your voice. Here’s to the being, and the back rubs, and friends.

  4. I think you have put into words what I feel when people try to commiserate about how hard twins are. They are. But I asked for this. Directly, up front, knowing what it might be like, I said I wanted to mother two babies at once, which takes a lot of the edges off the hard parts. Because how often in this life do you get exactly what you wish for, especially in the big things? Meanwhile, we are so excited to see you and to meet your little bird!

  5. A great read, thanks. I too have been feeling conflicted about work and motherhood. I appreciate the reframing of being as opposed to having. It makes so much more sense for me.

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