Last week, while reading student essays, I came across a sentence that shifted something in me. It was a Tuesday morning, and I sat in my dark and quiet office. This essay told the story of a mother-son relationship, a relationship that had nearly dissolved once the author reached adulthood. It was a beautiful essay, and in the second paragraph the author explained that his teenage years had been filled with small transgressions and punishments, but none of these conflicts had ever threatened his bond with his mother because she had made it so undeniably clear that she loved him. “Parenting is not hard,” he wrote. The knowledge of her love was all he’d ever needed.
Parenting is not hard. That was the sentence. I underlined it in purple pen.
All week that sentence kept replaying itself in my brain, often during parenting moments that were, indeed, hard, like when Stump refused to get in his car seat at the end of a long day, or when Smoke was crying with disappointment because a friend had canceled a play date. “Parenting is not hard,” I kept telling myself, even though of course I know it is. The sentence was kind of like a flat round stone you might find on the beach, one that you can turn over in your hand and examine at different angles. Each time you hold it to the light, you might spot a new detail: a fleck of gold or a thin stripe of green.
Parenting is not hard. Each time that sentence plays inside my mind, I slow down a little bit. I breathe a little deeper. I enjoy my kids for who they are. I enjoy myself with them. My world expands. That sentence offers me distance from all the minutiae I worry about daily: the rash on Stump’s bottom and the fact that he still insists on pooping in a diaper; the fact that Smoke has giant grown-up teeth coming in behind the baby teeth and he refuses to wiggle them loose; that fact that I can get my kids to eat fruit but not vegetables.
Parenting is so hard that sometimes it is impossible to do it well. I’m pretty sure that this is true not only for me but for any parent who ever lived. No matter how much patience I cultivate, now matter how many strategies I try, I am not always the person I want to be. I harp; I complain; I storm out of rooms.
And so, it’s nice to shift perspectives, to turn the stone around. Parenting is not hard. All of those things I’m losing sleep over may not be the things that matter very much. They won’t be the things my kids remember in fifteen years. Maybe Smoke will remember that I let him stay up way too late every night so we could read together on the couch. Maybe Stump will remember that I let him cling to me in the mornings, that I carried him around the house with his arms around my neck, his long legs dangling from my hip. Or maybe none of us will remember any of these details, but instead it will all just be a blur of bodies sharing space.
Earlier this week, when I picked Smoke up from school, I told him that I would have to leave after dinner to go to a parenting class.
“Is it about learning not to yell?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Is that something you want me to work on?”
“That’s the only thing,” he told me. “Everything else you do I like.”
The car was quiet for a moment as Smoke continued to think. “Actually,” he said, “I don’t care if you yell. Can you just stay home tonight?”
“I already paid for the class,” I told him. “And also,” I explained, “I wish I knew how to get your brother to stop hitting people.”
Smoke considered this. “Okay,” he agreed.
I parked the car in the driveway, and began the process of unpacking the car, of feeding the dogs, of trying to assemble a meal that my children would eat so that I could leave the house again and learn to be a better parent. But I already knew that Smoke had offered the better lesson: Just love me. Do what you do. Don’t go to the class. Stay home.
Yesterday, because the sun was out, I took Stump, my three-year-old, to a park we don’t often visit. The playground area was overflowing with kids and parents, and so Stump and I were quick to move on. We moved to the sunny field for a while and then Stump pointed to the tennis courts. No one was actually playing tennis. There was just a sunny court, a few puddles, and a little girl, maybe five years old, whose mother was helping her learn to ride a bike. The moment I opened the tennis court gate, the little girl jumped off her bike and ran to us. For a moment I was confused. Was there someone behind us that she knew? Did she mistake my kid for someone else? But I didn’t have too much time to wonder, because she was already standing beside me, tickling the inside of Stump’s hand with her index finger, and Stump was tickling her back. They stood face-to-face. The little girl began tracing Stump’s forehead with her finger, and he reached up to trace hers as well. Their greeting was at once ceremonial and natural, as if they were beings from a faraway planet, one that had an intimate custom for meeting strangers.
The exchange went on for minutes as they stood there exploring each others’ faces, both of them captivated, smiling. The other mom and I stood on the sidelines laughing, not sure exactly what to do or say—I mean what do you do when your child has fallen so suddenly and utterly in love?
Eventually the little girl ushered Stump into the center of the court where she showed him her bike and invited him to check out her handlebar streamers, which were silver and purple and fluttering. She told him where he could stand while she practiced riding, and then after a few laps around the court, her mother told her it was time to go.
“I’m going to a birthday party,” she explained to my son. “Do you want to come too?”
“Yeah,” Stump said.
“That’s nice of you to invite him,” her mother said. “Do you want to tell your new friend goodbye?”
She embraced him. He returned her embrace. She kissed his cheek. He kissed her back. They were quiet and radiant, wide-eyed and giggling. They kissed each other quickly on the lips (the lips!) and then she stepped away and hopped on her bike. “Wow,” said the little girl’s mother. I shook my head in amazement. My eyes were wet and I could not stop laughing. When they were finally out of sight, Stump looked at me and said, “I want to go to that party.”
The night before, because I couldn’t sleep, I had been lying in bed considering the word beloved. I thought about who was beloved in my life, and a row of faces appeared to me. At first they were the faces you would expect—my children, my partner, my brother. But my pre-sleep brain kept going, kept presenting me with rows upon rows like a stadium, concentric circles of beloveds. I saw the faces of family and friends, colleagues and students, people I’d worked with behind a counter in my twenties, friends I’d made in summer camp and then drifted from. My waking brain was skeptical. Really? I asked myself. All of them?Yes, all of them, my sleep brain replied. And then the rows of beloveds kept expanding until they included everyone on earth. Even Donald Trump? my waking brain asked. Even Donald Trump, sleep brain replied. It made so much sense at the time. Sleep brain took over and I finally drifted off.
There’s this moment in the book Fun Home where the narrator, Alison, is five years old and eating with her father in a diner. A woman—a stranger—walks in wearing a flannel shirt and short hair. She’s delivering boxes on a hand truck. She gets the waiter’s signature and leaves. This is the first butch woman that our narrator has ever seen and she describes the moment this way:
Like a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home—someone they’ve never spoken to, but know by sight—I recognized her with a surge of joy.
When the narrator says “I recognized her,” what she means is that she saw herself in that woman, that the very sight of her opened a door, gave her permission to become a self that she both feared and longed to be (in this case a woman who expresses gender on her own terms). On the next page, the narrator says: “the vision of the truck-driving bulldyke sustained me through the years.”
I keep pausing there. The vision of the bulldyke sustained her. It fed her and kept her alive until a moment in her adult life when she could finally own who she was.
I consider also the “surge of joy” she describes in that moment of recognition, and the surge of joy I felt vicariously for Stump when that young girl greeted him with a wide-open heart. She saw him. He saw her back. Their love filled a tennis court. It filled my whole weekend.
When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that the most satisfying surprise is the surprise of recognition, the surprise of I-should-have-seen-that-coming-but-I-didn’t. That’s exactly how this photo felt to me: of course there was a horse in the window. That used to happen all the time.
One summer these horses roamed the valley and we watched them from a distance. We’d see them trot towards the creek at the bottom of the hill, or we’d drive by them in the meadow on our way down the mountain.
The next summer, Kellie bought a metal trough and filled it with fresh water from our well. The horses discovered this and every morning we had company. Just as the sun rose over the hill, I’d wake to the sound of them munching and nickering. They hung around the cabin for an hour or more, sidling up to the porch or the outdoor sink, pooping in our driveway. When I watched them from inside the cabin or when I went outside and stepped cautiously between them, I felt like I was the guest and they were the residents. I felt this way because it was true.
Kellie claimed that it was practical to have horses eating our grass, and I know that she was right. Tall grass becomes a fire hazard once it dries. But I also know Kellie well enough to understand her motives. She bought and filled the trough because she wanted their company.
The horses visited us at the cabin for two summers and then, the following spring, their owner sold them all. The land seemed awfully quiet the first summer they were gone. I would wake to a sunny day and watch the wind move through the grass, watch a bluebird perch on a mullein stalk. No one was tromping through; no one was munching.
By the next year I had all but forgotten the horses. Instead, I watched my baby learn to scoot himself across the floor. I fed him applesauce and oatmeal. I carried him on long walks. When I remembered that there had once been horses, my mind placed them halfway down a hill, living their own horse lives far from us. I forgot about how well we’d been acquainted.
After the surprise of this photo, I spent some time marveling at how I could forget something so big as a horse in my window, how something so vivid could be buried so deep.
Slowly I remembered all the other lives I’ve led—my own life in three-year increments, iterations of me that felt permanent but were not.
I remember, for instance, the years I spent trying to get pregnant and how stark my world seemed then. How the chance of a baby felt like the fur mouse on a cat toy, alternately in reach and then so far away.
Or I remember when my first child was a newborn, and everyone kept saying “It all goes by so fast,” but instead those days slogged along. I nursed my baby every two hours, and then nursed him before bed for three hours straight, and then woke up in the night to nurse him some more. The whole process was in equal measures sublime and boring, precious and frustrating, and I thought it was my new forever-life.
Nearly every reality I’ve lived has felt permanent. Every reality has been temporary.
Our cabin, as far as I know has not burned down, but the world it occupies has been forever changed. Last night I dreamed that we returned to the land with our children and discovered that the surrounding hills were still burning. This is not far from the truth.
I do not know what we will find next time we return. I don’t know what landscape we’ll see on the seven-hour drive, if it will be ash, or scorched trees. I don’t know what I’ll see from our cabin window—to what extent the view will have changed.
I will say this: I am grateful to bear witness, to still have four walls and a porch in Okanogan County, to have years ahead of me to see how green forges a path through char and ash, to observe the cycle of devastation and regeneration. I know that it is a luxury to be at once connected to and distant from disaster: my loss is peripheral—something I love has shifted, but it has not left my world forever.
In three years remind me of the time before the fire. I will have forgotten by then.
This morning, moments after I woke up, Kellie greeted me by saying, “It’s all over.”
“Huh?” I said, rubbing my eyes and starting the kettle.
“Our cabin,” she said, and explained that Aeneas Valley was evacuated overnight. Our cabin currently sits between two rapidly growing fires.
Just last weekend we had traveled there with a weed whacker in the back of the truck because the fire season was well under way, because it was already a bad one, because we were overdue for our annual fire abatement—and also, because we love it there.
We left on a Friday morning, the same morning that lightning had started dozens of small fires. Some of the fires had grown into big ones. As we drove through Chelan, the air grew increasingly thick with smoke. The parking lot of the elementary school was filled with fire trucks and mobilizing crews. Spectators lined up on one side of the bridge, shielding their eyes with their hands. As we crossed the bridge, I saw what they saw: a bright red fire descending down a not-so-distant hill.
For a mile we drove through smoke as thick as fog. When we finally turned North and traveled along the Columbia River, the air became suddenly clear enough that we could see again, and I felt just as suddenly that we had emerged from a place we shouldn’t have been. My sons pointed out the window, watching as a helicopter descended and filled its red bucket in the river. The bucket looked so small—like an overfilled water balloon—that I wondered how it was even worth the effort.
“That bucket carries 350 gallons,” Kellie told us. She speaks from experience. For nine years she fought fires on a helitack crew. Any time we hit the road during fire season, I can see something like nostalgia rise within her, a former way of being, woman vs. fire.
We traveled for another eighty miles, but the smoke never fully cleared. When we arrived at our cabin the air was visibly hazy. Kellie got out of her truck and surveyed the horizon. “That’s not good,” she said. She pointed to a puffy white cloud. It was mostly blocked by trees but steadily growing. Our kids ran wild around the cabin, but I stood there watching as Kellie narrated the cloud to me. There, where the cloud looked brown, living things were burning up. There, where white smoke fed the cloud, that fire was burning hot. I stood there transfixed. Without Kellie’s help I might not have even noticed that cloud, but now the more I looked the more I understood it as a living growing thing.
“Should we even stay?” I asked her. It was six o’clock already, and the sun would soon sink on the other side of the hills.
“It will cool down tonight,” Kellie said. “We’ll watch it in the morning.”
I spent the night awake, imagining the fire creeping towards us, the phrase “fast as wildfire” in my head, but when morning came our land was magically clear and still. Stump, our two-year-old son, played on the porch while I drank my morning tea at the picnic table. My heart filled. Usually being in wilderness feels good, but there’s angst at the edges. It’s a little too hot or a little too cold, or you’re swatting away at black flies, or your kids are fighting, or one of your dogs keeps putting his nose in your crotch. But this morning the sky was blue and the air was just cool enough. The smoke had settled. The fire clouds from yesterday had disappeared.
Kellie spent the day whacking down dry grass and raking it into piles. Together we moved the piles to a tarp and dragged them away from the cabin. Every year we had done this. The idea is to create a safe un-flammable circle around the cabin, but to be honest it feels more like dropping a penny in a well.
That evening Kellie said to me, “If there’s anything you want to save, now’s the time to grab it.” It took me a minute to realize what she meant. She meant that even though the air looked clear right now, even though I had relaxed my guard, I should prepare to say goodbye. I should save any object I wanted to keep. Kellie pointed to a painting of a mountain goat we’d found at a thrift store, and an antique wooden goblet that featured an elk. These were her choices. I agreed with them.
Only two weeks ago, I wrote about object attachment and how, if you asked me what three things I would save from a fire I wouldn’t know what to choose. As it turns out, that was accurate. As I looked around the cabin, the things that I wanted to save were the walls, the floor, the woodstove, the porch. The actual cabin. There wasn’t any individual thing I wanted, just all of things, together.
Earlier in the day it had occurred to me: this cabin was the one thing that Kellie and I have bought and made together. Kellie and I had been a couple for three years when we decided to buy raw land. We spent months driving around the state every weekend looking at parcels. We bought land where we did because it was cheap and wild and beautiful, even though it meant driving three hundred miles on the highway and another six miles up a rutted dirt road. We paid a local jack-of-all-trades to build a cabin: four walls and a loft and some windows. We’d do all the finish work ourselves.
For at least three years we spent seasons full of weekends making that drive to put in floors, build an outhouse, install a deck. I’m not handy, but I can follow directions and Kellie can give them, and so when I look at the floors I remember installing the boards with a pry bar and a nail gun, and when I look at the ceilings I remember trying to hold the sheets of plywood steady, one at a time, while Kellie nailed them to the beams.
We were probably halfway through this years-long project when Kellie and I got married in front of family and friends, but when I look back on things it feels like that cabin is the thing that married us. Because driving six hundred miles together every weekend, and drinking beers on the front porch as the sun sunk below the hills, and arguing about whether or not that board is hung at an angle, and trading off two-minute solar showers, those are the things that bound us.
On Sunday afternoon, the day before we had planned to leave, we drove eight miles to the general store for ice cream. As we pulled into the dirt parking lot there were people watching the most recent blaze. The fire was climbing up one side of the hill, and it was clear that soon it would descend on the other side. The store owner said he would stay open all night. Further in the distance was another fire cloud. These two fires were expected to combine and grow. A couple in a Subaru pulled in next to us as we watched the fire and ate our ice cream.
“Is anyone fighting that?” a tall man in his thirties asked Kellie.
“There’s no one left to fight it,” Kellie said. “The whole west is on fire.” We watched as a single airplane zigzagged in the distance, but so far there was no parade of fire trucks, no clear and obvious rally like what we’d seen in Chelan.
That night I took a bath outside as the clouds changed color and I felt as lucky as I ever have to be nestled, naked, in the mountains. Though I knew that fires blazed less than ten miles away, the air was clear and it was easy to believe that all was well, that it always had been and it always would be.
This morning, after Kellie shared the news about the evacuation and the growing fire, as I slowly woke up and tried to believe what I knew was real, I thought about our cabin floors again, and our walls. From the beginning we knew that we risked losing anything we built on that mountain, that wild fires blazed every year and missing them was just a matter of luck. Still, we didn’t build a cabin we could bear to lose. We built it as if we planned to pass it on to our sons, to keep it in our family forever. We loved every beam and every plank. We cut our pieces carefully and laid them out true. And I realize that is exactly how I want to live.
Yesterday morning, when the Supreme Court announced their ruling on same-sex marriage, I was driving to the airport with my wife. Kellie has been my wife for twelve years if you’re going by our personal vows, but only two years if you’re going by the state’s laws. If I had thought to turn on NPR, I probably would have heard the news, but instead I just stared out the window and commented on the lack of traffic.
Perhaps if I had listened closely at the airport I would have caught wind of this big story, but I was just focused on how hot I was and cranky, waiting in the 40-minute TSA line.
And once Kellie and I arrived in California, I didn’t plug in. We sat on the beach and stared at the water, enjoying the quiet. In those moments, I appreciated my distance from the world.
And so I was surprised when, at 9 pm, after settling into a cabin at the end of a winding road, I finally plugged in and discovered that nearly all of the profile pictures in my Facebook feed were covered in rainbows. “Something big happened,” I announced to Kellie who sat in the next room, reading. I had known the Supreme Court decision was imminent, but hadn’t dared hope for the best-case scenario.
“What?” she asked.
I opened a link to a story that explained the significance of the supreme court decision: all fifty states must now recognize same-sex marriages.
“What?” Kellie asked me again, and I opened my mouth to answer her, and tried for a while, but nothing came out. I could not speak because I was sobbing.
Kellie rose from the couch to come find me. I worried it looked like I had just encountered horrible news, that I had just learned of a friend’s sudden death, but still I couldn’t speak. “Oh my god,” I finally whispered. “It’s over.”
I thought that Kellie and I were done getting married, that not much could touch me ever since the repeal of DOMA, but my life and my heart felt bigger knowing that the whole country had turned green.
Kellie stood behind me, reading the news on my screen, and when we finished we clicked through the slide show. Our mirth could not be contained—we cackled and sighed until we came to the last photo: the White House lit in rainbow. “Fucking Obama!” I cried out, and I know it sounds like I was cursing him, but really it was the opposite. What gall, what spunk, to turn a Supreme Court decision into a full-on presidential party. Fucking Obama. Because it is one thing to soberly announce that the country will now acknowledge our right to marry, and it is another thing entirely to thumb your nose at the haters and blast the White House with color.
My partner Kellie keeps bees—a lot of them. Actually, she does more than keep them. She catches swarms, she cuts colonies out of walls and re-homes them into hives, and sometimes, when she gets a call about some honeybees living in a tree that the owner wants to cut down, Kellie drives on over with a chain saw, and comes home with four feet of the trunk—a ready-made beehive complete with a well-established colony.
We’ve got three of these trunk-hives on our property, and I’ve often tried to convince Kellie that she could sell one or two of them for big money—I mean, who wouldn’t want their own bee log? Of course, there’s no way to maintain the trunk-dwelling colonies. You can’t put on a bee-suit, break into the hive and see how they’re doing. You just have to let them do their thing. Then, when a colony dies, they leave behind a ready-made honey-smelling home for the next swarm that comes along.
Spring has come early in Olympia and for the last two weeks, whenever the sun comes out, Kellie’s phone starts ringing. People call because they have swarm in their yard, or they want to borrow a frame of comb, or they can’t tell if their queen is laying.
I’ve learned about bees by osmosis, from hearing Kellie on the phone and watching her suit up and go to work, but I’ve never handled the bees. Someone’s got to watch the kids, and even on the days when Kellie is capturing a swarm in our neighborhood, I have my hands full trying to keep Stump from running into the middle of the action. Over the years, my knowledge has expanded but my competence is limited.
This is why, last Friday afternoon, Kellie surprised me with her request. She had called me at work to let me know that she had a couple of swarm calls in a neighboring town and wouldn’t be home until after dinner. “When you get home will you look around the backyard?” she asked me. “One of my hives is fixing to swarm.”
“Sure,” I said. Checking is easy. I’ve come to love the thrum and excitement of a swarm as they depart their former home, followed by their steady silence once they’ve clustered on a branch. “But what do you want me to do if that happens?” I was expecting that she would explain to me where the nearest bait box was, but she had a different idea. “Catch them,” she said, like it was the simplest thing in the world.
I was as flattered by Kellie’s faith in me as I was bewildered by the suggestion that I would intuitively know how to guide a swarm of honeybees into a nuc box, and that I could do so with a toddler at my side.
As it turned out, there was no swarm that afternoon, but her suggestion haunted me through the weekend, and every so often I asked her a question to clarify what she had envisioned for me.
“So you really think I could do that?” I asked her.
And later: “You mean I wouldn’t even need a bee suit?”
And later: “I don’t get it. I would just shake the branch and the bees would magically settle in the nuc?”
“Yes,” she said, “or you can always scoop them out with your hands.”
I kept thinking about an interview I’d read with Ann Patchett many years ago about her novel The Magician’s Assistant. She explained that her impulse for writing this book came from her observation that spouses gradually acquired the skills of their partners. Over time, we take on traits of the person we’ve married. We can channel them, imitate them, become them.
I remembered this on Monday, when temperatures reached 72 degrees—swarm weather. I came home with Stump at lunchtime and put him down for a nap. The evening before, one of Kellie’s colonies had swarmed and gathered high in a fir tree, way up at the edge of our line of vision. She couldn’t catch it, but she’d been keeping an eye on the cluster, hoping the scout bees might discover one of her baited boxes. When I called her from home that afternoon, she asked me to go outside and see if they had moved.
I could no longer make out the cluster, but I could see dozens of bees darting around the same tree. “They’re going nuts up there,” I told her. “Is that the same swarm or a new one?”
“Can’t say,” she said, and instructed me to look in all the nucs to see if they had settled into one of those. I reported back that they were empty. I was disappointed. I so badly wanted to be the one keeping things under control.
Ten minutes later, as Stump still slept, I got curious and went outside again, but before I could make it to the back of the yard, I was distracted by a loud, insistent buzz. They were right outside the gate, thousands of bees darting through the light. Though I know that swarms aren’t angry, I find their motion and noise—which carries the volume of a thousand unified intentions—intimidating. I called Kellie again. “You’ve got a situation,” I told her. I cautiously opened the gate and stepped to the edge of the action. “They’re outside that log hive by the road.”
I was preparing myself to follow her instructions, to step into the role that she had imagined for me, the role where I wasn’t a bystander, but an apprentice, a fellow beekeeper. “What should I do?” I asked.
“Are they flying toward the log, or away from the log?”
“Toward it–Oh!” i said realizing that this particular log-hive had been empty for a while. Are they making a home?”
“You tell me. Are they going inside?”
“They are!” I said. I couldn’t believe it. “It’s that swarm from the tree? They’re moving in? I don’t have to do anything?”
Twenty minutes later, when Stump woke up from his nap, I took him outside to verify. The bees had settled into their new home and now just a few of them buzzed back and forth from the entrance. I was half relieved that the bees hadn’t required my assistance, half disappointed that I’d been denied my chance to rise to the occasion.
Later that same afternoon, after discovering yet another swarm in our cherry tree, I placed Stump on my hip and watched as Kellie tenderly scooped a handful of bees into the nuc box. Though dozens of annoyed bees darted past her face, the ones on her hand crawled quietly into the new home she had prepared for them. After repeating this three times, she climbed down the four-foot ladder, took off her gloves, and trusted that the rest of the colony would follow.
Now that I’ve seen how it’s done, next time, I swear, I’ll be ready.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d follow on a post from two weeks ago where I responded to a viral post on Scary Mommy about parents and sex. My complaint about this post was that it was so incredibly depressing; central to many of the “types of sex” was the implication that the wife wasn’t an especially happy participant, that after becoming parents men continue to want sex and women occasionally comply.
And so, just for fun, I’ve tried to construct something that resembles what I was hoping for when I clicked on that link in the first place.
Don’t think too hard about the fact that this is probably what your own parents were doing while you were watching Saturday morning cartoons on NBC every single week. In the era of Netflix, you’ve got a range of choices, but you’ve got to get it right. Barney, for instance, will no longer work since your older child has decided it’s condescending. Dinosaur Train would be a safer bet, except that when Dr. Scott the Paleontologist appears between segments the toddler often starts wandering the house and calling for you. Right now Blue’s Clues is the safest bet because it holds your toddler’s attention and inspires a fond nostalgia in your older child. You have exactly twenty-three minutes. Go.
Empty House Sex:
This is often prearranged, though it might happen twice in a year that you spontaneously discover that both of your children are gone and you are home. Just the novelty of that is enough to turn you on. You have a window of that that allows for some preparation. Brush your teeth beforehand or maybe even take a shower because, you know, you want this to be really special. Lie in bed for at least ten minutes afterwards and pretend together that you never had children. Feel slightly guilty about that as you get dressed and prepare to welcome them home.
Roll over to spoon in the middle of the night and discover that your partner is also awake. Kiss passionately, both of you surprised that this is actually happening. Ruin the moment a little by wondering at what point the baby will wake up because you’re pretty sure he will. Continue on anyway. Try to be silent. Laugh together at how obvious and silly the squeaking bed sounds when you are keeping other noises to a minimum.
In between kisses ask: Did you remember to call in that refill? and, Did my W-2 forms ever come in the mail? Feel a little embarrassed when your partner points out that these questions aren’t enhancing the mood. You actually are enjoying this, it’s just that life’s daily tasks flood in and recede like a tide. Fight the urge to ask about that weird stain that appeared on the carpet last week, or if we need to buy diapers next time we go to Costco. Return the kiss instead.
When it passed through my news feed in Facebook, I clicked.
I clicked because I’m a sucker for funny listicles, and because I hoped to be mildly entertained. I clicked because I hoped that I might see something of myself reflected there. I clicked because, let’s face it, as the mother of two young kids I can only come up with three types of sex, and so I was hoping to find some inspiration.
But this post did not inspire me. What it did was bum me out by repeatedly suggesting that, to mothers of young children, sex is rarely more than an unpleasant chore.
For instance, in item #2 on the list, Half Sex, the author describes a scenario wherein one half of the couple discovers, mid-intercourse, that he is the only one enjoying himself.
Not only am I still not laughing, but I am flummoxed, tired, and disappointed. In the end, this list turns out to not so much be about how parents are having sex, but about all of the ways that mothers are avoiding sex, or not enjoying sex, or getting burned by husbands.
[Side note: At the end of this post, there’s a link to another post by a different author called 5 Ways to Please Your Man! (Or, Not). This one presents a list of hypothetical scenarios where a wife goes to great lengths to initiate a sexual encounter with her husband, and they all end in the wife’s humiliation. In one scenario her husband responds to her advances by pointing out that she has spinach in her teeth. In another, her son makes fun of her ass.]
Maybe, as lesbian, I shouldn’t even be responding to these posts. Maybe they really do speak to universal truths that have nothing to do with me. Who am I to argue with 190K likes on Facebook?
But something is nagging at me. It’s this narrative of the wife who struggles (and fails) to keep up with her husband’s sex drive after having children. She’s no longer desirable to herself or her partner. Every attempt at intimacy ends with her as the butt of a joke.
Why is this the only story I see represented? For every woman out there who eschews sex after motherhood, I’m sure there’s a woman who wants more sex than she’s getting, and also a woman who’s more or less happily aligned with her partner. We mothers, we’re not all sexless fools, furiously trying to distract our partners from their adolescent fantasies.
It’s true for me that motherhood has changed my relationship to sex. I live in a different body than I did seven years ago, before I had ever been pregnant. It’s a body that has been stretched beyond its former limits, a body shaped by the daily demands my kids place on it. My arms are toned from years of lifting toddlers. My belly sags. On any given day my breasts grow and shrink, lift and drop from the practical work of lactation. And it’s true that most nights, more than anything, I just want to reclaim my own body, to spread out across the bed alone and sleep.
But motherhood has also freed me of some of the cultural myths I’ve learned about sex. I no longer have to close my eyes and pretend to be perfect. Sex is no longer the Very Serious Thing it once was. It’s okay if I haven’t showered since yesterday morning, or if I’m fatter than I was two weeks ago, if there’s spinach in my teeth, or if I can hear Barney songs playing in the background.
None of that matters, because my body is still capable of pleasure. And isn’t that the point? Sex isn’t just for the young and the firm. Sex is also for the aging, the broken, the sagging, for those of us tethered to earth by this thing we call a body. We might as well use it for as long as it lasts.
When it comes to Christmas, there are two kinds of people I’ve never really understood.
The Would-Be Elves: people who think it’s the most wonderful time of the year.
The Sullen Humbugs: the people who constantly refer to the holidays as being “hard” or something to “get through.”
For most of my adult life, I would have categorized Christmas mostly along the lines of minor pain in the ass with a few bright spots. I like other people’s light displays, but I don’t feel like going to the trouble of putting up my own. I like giving gifts, but I never feel like I’ve given enough. I like sweets, but I’d prefer a nice batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies to an endless array of shortbreads and fudges. Still, I can almost bring myself to understand that for the Would-Be Elves, a season of lights and crafting and gift-giving is just what they need to make it through the dark season.
The Sullen Humbugs I had a harder time with. Sure, I’ve felt a fleeting sense of malaise on every Christmas morning I remember, a fear that nothing is as special as it’s supposed to be, but it struck me that the humbugs attributed more power to the holiday than it really had. What exactly was so “hard” about a month where people hung up lights and shopped a lot?
This year I’m starting to get it.
Smoke is six this year, which makes him Christmas’s target audience. He’s no longer afraid of Santa like he once was. (Several years ago, we had to leave Santa a note requesting that he not come in the house.) Smoke is old enough to understand that he’ll be getting presents, but he can’t quite measure time the way an older child can, which means that, I imagine, it feels to him like Christmas could arrive at any moment. It could be tomorrow, or it could be three months from now. And so, he’s living in a state of suspended anticipation. That’s intense.
To amp it up even further, he’s around twenty-five other kids all day who feel the same way and are feeding off of each other. I witnessed the pure synergy of this earlier this week when I dropped Smoke off in the kindergarten line and one of his classmates, a gentle boy who I’m fond of, was wearing a Santa cap. “Ho, ho, ho!” he said, and all the kindergarteners screamed in delight. “Ho, ho, ho!” he said again and again and again. This was a joke that would never grow old.
On Sunday Kellie bought a Christmas tree, but by the time she got it home it was dark and she was tired. The ornaments were still in boxes stored in the shed. When explained to Smoke that they wouldn’t be decorating the tree that night, he was genuinely dismayed. I had assumed it was pretty much impossible for a six-year-old to hold onto disappointment continuously for longer than an hour, but at bedtime he still looked glum; his lower lip had never returned to its usual spot.
The next morning, after eating an iced gingerbread cookie, he was the most distracted squirrely version of himself I’d seen in weeks and it took everything I had to get him ready for school and out the door. As I buckled him into his car seat, I hissed “We are NOT doing any more sugar in the mornings!” Smoke, barely registering my anger, replied, “I’m just so excited to decorate the tree tonight, I can’t think of anything else!” “Really?” I said, amazed that this tree could hold so much power for him.
Add to the chaos that Stump, who will be two next month, is fascinated with a) the concept of a tree indoors, b) lights, and c) shiny round balls (e.g. ornaments). In short, it’s as if Christmas trees were specifically designed as a decoy for him to systematically dismantle. So far he has pulled on the cords, leaned forward to suck on the lights, tried to hug the tree, pulled on branches, shaken branches, detached ornaments from their casing and hurled them at the floor.
To cope with all of the above, I’ve got a single strategy, a video that Kellie picked up at Costco for seventeen dollars, a purchase that I was initially critical of and which Stump now refers to as “Deer Show.” To distract Smoke from his perpetual anticipation, to keep Stump from tearing apart the Christmas tree, I am hosting daily screenings of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. So far the audience consists only of a towheaded baby in a diaper and a six-year-old in PJs hopping all over the couch, but if you ever find yourself needing a break from the holidays, feel free to drop in for the Deer Show. It will be playing and we’ll clear a spot for you.