It is dark outside when my half-sister pulls up to the rental house, but my son Smoke runs out to greet her. “I’ll carry your bag,” he says. His offer surprises me-I’ve never known him to play the gentleman. Once she’s inside, he tells her: “I can help you unpack.” “Why thank you,” she says. She is as surprised by I am at his chivalry. Her voice is the same as it’s always been—soft and almost laughing.
Smoke waits for her as she drinks a glass of water and uses the bathroom. While he waits, he lines her three bags against the wall from small to large. When she enters he is all eagerness, unzipping zippers, lining bottles in rows, putting shirts in one drawer, skirts in another. In the eight years he’s been alive, he has met my sister five or six times, but he is utterly, immediately at ease with her.
A memory: It is a hot summer night and I am sitting in my sister’s lap. I am four; she is nineteen. My parents have taken us to see a play at a community theater in rural Maine. Outside, the air has cooled. At intermission, we watched bats catch bugs by the outdoor lamps. But now we are back inside the theater where the air is still and muggy. We are waiting for the play to start again. The heat brings out all the body smells. My sister smells like baby powder and shampoo. Her hair spills over her shoulders. I pick up a handful and put it under my nose to pretend I have a mustache. It is an excuse to be as close to her as possible.
I wonder how it is that Smoke has recognized in my sister what has always been so comforting to me. He seems to intuit that all of her belongings are carefully selected treasures. He wants to be near her, in her space, sitting next to the woman who feels in some essential way just like his mother but also—and this is important—in some essential way mysterious and different.
Your childhood bedroom in your childhood home. It is a guest room now, with a different bed, but you recognize the sheets: tan and printed with zebras and gazelles. They were your sheets once you’d outgrown the Muppets and Strawberry Shortcake, and now here they are, thirty years later, unstained. You lie there now with your three-year-old. It’s eleven pm. Because it’s your second day on the east coast, and you are straddling time zones: it’s eleven but also it’s eight. You are tired, but your son is not—he napped from 5 to 7. Your son is feeding you lines of a story while you drift off to sleep. “Tell it Mommy!” he says, and then you come to for a moment, and utter aloud what you think you just heard, but it’s not making much sense. “And then the dragon peeled the orange,” you say. You’re not sure if you’re repeating what he said, or if your sleep-brain is corrupting everything, spitting back a story that has nothing to do with his original. He doesn’t seem to mind though as long as you keep talking. “Mommy, tell it!” he commands again. When you open your eyes you can see his face in the glow of the nightlight. The nightlight was your brother’s: a silver crescent moon set against a circle of frosted glass. When he was a child it sat on top of a small wooden shelf that your father had carved to look like a cloud. That shelf is gone. The nightlight sits on top of the dresser now. Its light softens everything. “I’m tired,” you tell your son. “Can I please go to sleep now?” You are surprised and relieved when he answers “yes.”
The feeling wakes you up a little. You open your eyes and he’s lying still on his back, his eyes open, looking at nothing, looking at the ceiling. You watch him for a moment. His eyelids grow heavy and close. Then they open again. Open, close, open, close. His stillness startles you. It wakes you even more. This is the boy who climbs trees and throws sticks, who fights you with all the strength in his body when you try to carry him away from the park, the boy who refuses food and then screams because he’s hungry, the boy who resists nap time until he collapses from exhaustion but who, by some strange miracle, agrees to bedtime. You wonder what goes through his mind as he lies next to you in this room that used to be yours. What is behind those eyes? You remember a time when you were about the same age, lying in this same spot, and you were supposed to be asleep but you weren’t and you found a penny in your bed and discovered that it left a black mark against the wall and so you kept making lines, over and over, your mind wonderfully blank, caught in the slow motion of leaving your mark.
Your son is asleep now. You are awake. You get out of bed and turn out the light. Outside the window you can make out the branches of the backyard tree, a tree you saw nearly every day of your childhood. Somehow, in spite of time, it looks exactly the same, no bigger or smaller.
On Monday afternoon as I turned onto a freeway onramp, a mother duck and her ducklings crossed directly in front of my van. Both of my kids were strapped in the backseat. As I hit the brake, I checked my mirrors, worried that someone might rear-end me. But strangely, even though it was rush hour, this particular onramp was empty for the moment. I put on my hazards and watched as the group crossed together, all of them unified in their determination. The whole thing took about eight seconds. As I drove off, I argued with Stump about whether or not I’d killed the ducks.
“You ran over them,” he insisted.
“No, honey, I stopped. They made it to the other side. If I had hit those ducks I’d be crying right now.”
Smoke came to my defense. “She didn’t hit them. I would be crying too if she did.”
When we got home, there was a box on my doorstep. Inside, I found a gift from my sister: two ceramic mugs that had been shipped across the country. The mugs were wrapped in bubble wrap, and the box was full of packing peanuts. As I sat on the floor admiring the mugs, Stump took two handfuls of the foam and threw them like confetti. Smoke laughed. Before I could intervene, Stump picked up the box and dumped all of the peanuts on the floor. My muscles tensed as I prepared myself to lift him and remove him from the scene. But then I stopped myself. In the world of a three-year-old packing peanuts are a special occasion. Since the damage had been done, I might as well let him enjoy it.
Stump and Smoke threw peanuts in the air. They rolled around on the floor. They stomped on them. I watched as a number of the peanuts broke into many pieces.
I stayed there, cross-legged on the floor, just watching. I am spending time with my kids, I told myself. It felt like a spinoff of last week’s mantra, Parenting is not hard. This wasn’t the early evening activity I would have planned for them, but it was the one they had chosen, and really it was no better or worse than a walk to the park or a romp in the backyard. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t thrilled about it; it only mattered that I was there, on the floor in the moment, half-grumpy and half-calm.
When their fun began to wane, I asked them to help me pick up the peanuts, and they did. (Their effort was a little lackluster, I admit, but it was something.) I spent ten minutes vacuuming the tiny left-behind pieces, and then we moved on to dinner.
All of this is part of a life strategy I’m trying to cultivate called Dealing with What’s in Front of Me. The mama duck walks in front of my car so I stop. My kid dumps the packing peanuts on the floor and so we play with them. I’m trying to move into the mode of responding to my world—and responding to it fully and with patience and zest—rather than controlling it.
I’ve been playing with this strategy at work as well. These days, when I teach a class, I try to remember to look around the room and breathe, to not just be a talking, disembodied head. Rather than planning six activities and working to move us through each one on a schedule, I try to leave room to let my students surprise me, and they do. When I ask questions, I try to let go of my own prescribed answer. On the days when I succeed at that, my world feels altered. I come home feeling connected to something that’s bigger than me.
I think about the mother duck and her experience of the freeway. I think about her standing on one side of the onramp, her babies lined up behind her, anticipating her next move: all that focused concentration. In the span of a single moment, the noise of traffic quiets just enough for her to go. Once she starts, there is no hesitation. She commits to that moment and to her own impulse. That trust becomes the thing that, more than any other thing, protects her.
Image Credit, Mother Duck and Ducklings: Carole Smith Berney
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.
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.
I just returned from leaving my children for what felt like a year.
Actually, it was only a week. I was gone for seven nights exactly, but while I was away time opened wide like a yawning mouth.
I went to Big Sur for a writing retreat, and the goal was to settle into my own rhythms, to have time to be quiet, but for the first three nights I was stiff with worry. I worried that someone needed me, that my children were crying, were in pain, that they might stop breathing at any moment, or fall down a flight of stairs. I worried that my phone would ring in the middle of the night, that someone would call with unbearable news.
On the fourth night, upon learning that both of my boys were happily eating and playing and sleeping, I finally let go. In my temporary bed, I settled into a deep and solitary sleep, slept for many hours, and woke when my body told me to wake. I walked a quarter mile to the lodge, filled my coffee cup, sat by the window and believed that all was well.
In letting go, I became truly separate from my children. That I had another life away from the ocean kept surprising me. I had a life of wandering, of writing, of staring out at the ocean, watching the pelicans fly in a row towards the water, and then away from it. I had time to start a thought and finish it.
This feeling of separateness was exactly the purpose of my trip, and yet it disturbed me. When I called home I asked Kellie: Does Smoke miss me? Does Stump even remember me? Do they ask about me?
“You haven’t been gone that long,” Kellie reminded me.
She passed the phone to Smoke, whose voice surprised me. Disconnected from his body, his voice sounded small, like his might have been three years old. I couldn’t make out his freckles, couldn’t see his long and narrow waist. “I can’t hear you very well because Stump is yelling, but I love you,” he reassured me, and then hung up.
On the eighth day I drove and flew towards home and arrived just after bedtime. All the lights in the house were off, and I unlatched our old screen door. Past the roaring fan, I found Kellie asleep next to Stump in the lower bunk, both of them on top of the covers. Stump wore just a diaper, and a pair of Spider-Man underwear over the diaper. I climbed up the bunk bed ladder just to glimpse Smoke, asleep in the dark wearing only his pants.
In the morning Smoke woke too early and I heard Kellie whisper to him, ushering him into our bedroom where I lay half awake. His hair was stiff from swimming and sweat. It stuck up in all directions. I called his name. “Mommy!” he said, and it was all he said. He climbed into bed and into my arms. I listened as his breathing slowed, my own mind drifting back to the ocean, how thick and still it looked on my last day, how three dolphin fins cut through the water, how two whales that morning slipped up for a moment and then back under. I drifted under too, my arms around my son.
Some time passed, and I surfaced again at the sound of Stump’s feet walking the distance from his bed to mine, knowing where to find me, knowing somehow I was home. He climbed in too, and settled on the other side of me, his head just above my armpit, and though he was wide awake he rested a moment before launching into chatter, and in that moment, resting, half-awake, I thought about how being a mother sometimes just means being a body, or even a place, like a wolf in her den, holding space for her cubs to rest against her heat, her smell, to feel her breath and know that they are home.
Do you know that feeling of being overtaken by a wave? One moment you’re happily body surfing, watching with curiosity as a wave takes shape and approaches, and the next moment—wham!—you’re underwater, being dragged across the sand by the current. You’re not in any real danger—the water is about two feet deep—but you are sore, and also: embarrassed. You stand up and look around to see if anybody saw that. You wade a little deeper and try to see if it’s possible to discreetly tug at your bathing suit and rinse some of the sand from your craw.
Dear Reader, that’s exactly what the second half of April has felt like. Here’s my best attempt to break it down.
I caught a cold and tried to ignore it. We had a lot going on (see #2) and so I told myself this illness would take care of itself. I continued to eat cheese, drink wine, to miss hours of sleep, to live as if I were feeling fine. And when, after a full week of this, the cold turned into asthma and irrepressible coughing, I just bumped up the dose on my inhalers, and waited for the meds to kick in. But that didn’t work either. Gradually, over the course of the second week, my asthma got worse, not better. I woke every morning coughing and gasping for air. The inhalers took the edge off, but they didn’t pull me out of illness. It turned out I needed a doctor, and Prednisone, and rest.
Kellie and I found a spacious mid-century house priced at the very upper edge of our price range. We’ve been on the fence about buying a house for years. We both want more space—we want things like a big room where the kids can mess everything up and be crazy loud and we can close the door—but the thought of a bigger mortgage makes us both tremble in our boots a little bit. We kept making decisions and then doubting those decisions; we took turns staying up all night; I spent an hour on the phone with a mortgage broker, and hours at the kitchen table with a pen and scrap paper and a calculator. Kellie and I kept calling each other at random moments during the workday to re-discuss the finer points until finally we decided to GOFOR IT!—and then, once again, we second-guessed ourselves. After hours of further discussion, we made an offer, and were amazed at how peaceful we finally felt. We went to sleep imagining our family spreading out in a house with two floors.
And then the next day we learned that we’d been outbid.
I had an essay go live that I was excited to share with the world—and within an hour of its release, I just wanted to hide beneath my covers. The essay was about the exhaustive decision-making process I went through with Kellie when deciding to have our first child. (See similar decision-making process as represented in #2 above. This is how we roll.) For a couple to negotiate different views on having kids struck me as a normal phenomenon, and it just plain never occurred to me that someone would read about that experience and judge me.
But twenty minutes after my essay went live, a commenter accused me of being emotionally abusive to Kellie, of coercing her into having a child. A whole thread of comments followed debating my character—was I totally reprehensible, or just a little bit manipulative? This was the real sneaker wave of April. I hadn’t predicted this reaction, nor could I have anticipated how totally raw and exposed a bunch of online commenters would make me feel.
To make things worse, the website where the essay appeared was set up to email me a notification every time someone commented. Throughout the day, I’d check my email and my heart would race each time I saw a comment notification. I held my breath and clicked on it, wondering what awful conclusions the most recent readers had drawn about me. It felt kind of like this:
Two days after the comments fiasco unfolded, my car started rattling. It began a half a block away from my house as I was preparing to drop off my kids and continue on to work. Though the rattling was undeniable, I tried for a moment to pretend it wasn’t happening. I asked myself if maybe I could possibly just keep driving to work?
The answer was no. Within the next half block, the rattling got progressively worse, and I parked on the side of the road to investigate. Was my car about to explode? Or maybe it was something simple—was my muffler dragging on the ground? No, but my front right tire was completely flat.
Kellie had forgotten her cell phone that day, so I was on my own. I left the car where I parked it and walked the kids a mile to the bus terminal downtown. This involved alternately corralling Stump and carrying him against his will.
Later that evening, Kellie replaced the flat tire and as she lowered the body of the car back down over the brand new wheel, it slowly became clear to us that the spare was flat too. I filled it with my bike pump and drove it directly to Les Schwab—which had closed. I left it to sit and deflate overnight.
When I came home the next day from picking up my car with brand new front tires, this had happened:
Actually, this one just turned out to be a cosmic joke. When Kellie came home, she fixed it in twenty minutes.
While all of this has been going on, Stump has been cultivating a superhero alter-ego. He’s reached that stage in life where he wants to be—needs to be—a superhero all of the time. He wants to wear armbands day and night, and won’t take them off for the bath. He wants to wear a cape over his t-shirt. To Stump, this isn’t about wearing a costume; he’s claiming his personal style.
In the midst of a sleepless night last week (see #2 & #3) I realized that this was exactly the way that I needed to see myself, that even though I’d hit a point where I felt tired and wounded and embarrassed and tired again, I needed to put on my armbands, put a cape on over my work clothes, cultivate my everyday superpowers, and surrender to my superlimitations. It was two in the morning at that point, and as I lay there I took stock:
Superpower: My body can heal itself.
Superlimitation: I actually have to slow down and help it.
Superpower: I am capable of radical oversharing. Lately, the more I write, the more it seems like this craft is about discovering the most revealing, vulnerable thing that I am capable of saying and then saying it.
Superlimitation: I am completely unable to control or even predict how that writing will be received.
Superpower-limitation: I’m the only one who can save me. On the morning of my flat tire, I called Kellie’s work office to tell her about the problem. “I can’t get a hold of her until the afternoon,” he co-worker explained. “That’s fine,” I told him. “I made it to work already.” “Oh, so you don’t need rescuing?” he clarified. When I got off the phone, I realized how badly I’d wanted rescuing all week. I wanted someone to make my asthma go away, to get rid of those critical commenters, to wave a magic wand and give me a new house that suited all our family needs without a mortgage. But at the end of the day, it’s just me in my sweaty human clothes lifting my fists to the sky like Superman, trying to up-up-and-away myself.
I never wanted to be that parent on an airplane, the one with the baby who screams and won’t stop, and up until yesterday I hadn’t been. I thought I had it figured out, that my choice to practice extended breastfeeding meant that I always had the proper tool to quiet my little ones. But if there’s a cardinal rule of parenting it’s this: the moment you get cocky about anything is the moment you dig your own grave.
Yesterday we flew from Seattle to Boston—a five-hour flight—and Stump, who is currently eighteen months, screamed for an hour straight. I’m worried that an hour sounds unimpressive, so allow me to add a little detail.
It began only a few minutes after we boarded, probably around the time that Stump figured out the airplane was going to be his temporary prison, that he would be loosely confined to my lap for an indefinite period. It was nap time, and he’d already been confined to the car seat and later the stroller since he’d awoken at six. And so, he began screaming and thrashing with all of his bobcat strength.
“Ten minutes,” I told myself, trying to restrain him so that he wouldn’t kick or head butt the large elderly man who shared our row—did I mention I was traveling sans partner? I figured once the plane started moving, Stump would settle. I’d nurse him (awkwardly, hiding from the old-man-neighbor), and he’d easily fall asleep. Whatever passengers he was annoying would calm down, wipe their foreheads and think: that baby’s not so bad.
The plane started moving. I tried to nurse him. He complied for a moment, then bolted away, arching back and screaming. I rushed to cover up my nipple. We repeated this at least four times until I gave up on the power of lactation to calm him. In my world, this is the sign of a serious problem. I held him and rocked him and begged him and shushed him and tried not to break down and cry. “You have to go to sleep,” I hiss-whispered.
“He’ll give it up eventually,” the old man reassured me. I wondered: what if he didn’t? What if he cried for the entire five hours and eight minutes? I told myself that even if this happened, the flight would end eventually, but I knew that every hour would feel like a decade. Those five hours would add up to longer than I’ve even lived.
The old man got up to use the restroom, and on his way back I overheard a woman offer to trade seats with him so that he could relax. He told her “Oh no; it’s fine.”
Stump was still screaming when I felt him fart through his diaper. It was an especially stinky fart for a baby, and it wafted right up into my face. It was then that I began to suspect that I understood the problem. Minutes later, I checked his diaper, and saw a tiny brown turd. He leaned into me crying. His crying was different than his screaming—it contained a hint of relief. He leaned into me, pooing, just letting it all go.
You see, Stump is a guy who poops on the move, not in his car seat, not in his stroller, and definitely not while his mom is force-nursing him. I wanted to get on the PA system and announce: “Fellow Passengers. He Just Had to Poop. Everything is Going to be Fine.”
Instead I dug through my bag for a diaper and wipes. Red-faced and sweaty, I carried my stinky baby to the bathroom and changed him on top of the toilet while he continued to scream. He screamed as I washed my hands and he screamed all the way back to his seat. But when I offered my breast he took it and instantly melted into a puddle of sleeping baby. My fellow passengers wiped their brows and collectively thought, That baby has issues.
It had been nearly a year and we still weren’t pregnant…There had to be another way.
Kellie reminded me that there was. If we could find the right man, we could move this operation into our home. We wouldn’t pay doctors. I wouldn’t have to lie on the cold exam table every month; there would be no clamp, no stirrups. Somehow, my desperation gave way to optimism. Maybe he was out there.
You can click on the link to learn how Smoke and Stump came to be.
Truth be told, this essay is a highly condensed version of the full-length memoir I’m currently working on. For me it’s the story of how a single act of generosity has shifted my definition of family. Thanks for reading!