A few people reported that they found my last blog post depressing. “Is it just the end of hope??” one asked, but that wasn’t what I meant, not exactly, and I’m sorry if you, too, found depressing the idea that normalcy is a fallacy. I hoped that by calling out our lives for what they are?unpredictable?that maybe we could make peace with it. I know that when I hold too tightly onto the idea of something being a certain way, when I hold too tightly onto joy, I feel that much more bummed out when it goes awry. A little lightness can help. Witness: when that flood happened, and Ben and I were both minorly freaking out, I noticed that when we had a quick conversation about it, accepted the fact that our house was going to be in chaos for a few days (ha! Try weeks), and hatched a clear plan for what to do next, we both felt a lot calmer.
But the comments I got on my last post made me see how a mantra of “life is unpredictable” could quickly become something like “life is unpredictable…so you should live each day like it’s your last.” And, you’re right?I do find that depressing. That carpe diem thing always makes me feel panicky. Am I living my best life? It makes me wonder. Could I be doing a better job? Answers: a) probably not, and b) yes, of course I could be doing something better. And then what happens? I take up skydiving because I think I should, because I might get hit by a bus tomorrow? What bugs me about the carpe diem mentality is it seems steeped in, among other things, white privilege. And class privilege. Uh, how are you supposed to live every day like it’s your last when you’re poor? Or, in my case, when you have two annoying but adorable kids, plus a very adorable gecko with very specific temperature needs that are stressful to meet?!
But hear me out. Because I’ve had a revelation.
I’m not going to take up skydiving, but I DO think that if life is so unpredictable…I should try a little harder to chase joy. In January, while I was on school break but things were in minor chaos at my house, I found myself feeling like I was wasting every day, not eeking enough enjoyment out of things and not having enough, well, fun. Part of this is the reality that mothers are never really “on vacation,” because even though I wasn’t working I had to rally the kids and make lunches and whatnot and whatnot and whatnot. But when I teased Ben that if he had an entire month off he’d be going on ski trips and day drinking and riding his bike and meeting me for lunch?and he eagerly agreed, and this is one of the things I love about my husband?I realized that I kind of have a hard time relaxing, being on vacation, even just accepting the abundance of my life and the many wonderful things about it.
I have a hard time accepting joy.
I know how that sounds, sort of Marie Kondo-esque, kind of woo-woo, very first-world problem-y, but it’s true: I am constantly rationing pleasure. If I wake up on a rainy Saturday and decide, you know what, I’m going to spend all three hours of Sammy’s nap time watching Project Runway re-runs, because I’m an adult, dammit, and I can make that kind of decision, partway through, I feel intensely guilty and go do some laundry. If I plan to do something frivolous of a Wednesday?say, meet a friend for some day shopping?I temper it by admonishing myself that I’ll have to get up early to write. If I’m sick and decide to read trashy novels for days on end, I get so depressed at not being up and productive I can’t even enjoy them.
And it carries into my work life and makes me worse at what I do. For example, right now I’m really, really trying to make a big mess of things with the poetry collection I’m writing, but every other day a stern voice urges me to stop playing, to stop creating, to start tightening the language and putting it together. Get serious, Suz, the voice urges. Work harder. Even though I know, in some other rational part of my brain, that I haven’t finished the writing/ideation phase yet, that it might be another six months or even a year before I’ve really worked out the kinks, and that NOT approaching it with too much seriousness is exactly what I should be doing.
Why do I do this? As penance? Because I’m so driven by guilt that I just can’t allow myself any reprieve? Because I don’t believe that I deserve the creative process, deserve joy? I’m not sure, but I know that day after day, I’m consumed by guilt. I’m constantly putting myself on cleanses or rationing my wine, curtailing my spending, feeling tight.
There’s a lot of joy in my life. A lot of space. A lot of stuff to be grateful for. And I am.
So. I’m trying to change this. I’m trying to allow myself some space. Some joy in the lovely process of writing poem after poem in the early morning dark, and not pausing to ask whether they’re any good. To take breaks. To drink a fancy cocktail after a tough day without guilt. Because like is short, and I might get hit by a bus tomorrow.
I’ll let you know how I do. And I’d love to know: do YOU ration joy, in your work, in your life? Comment it up, friends.
January is one of my favorite months, even with the rain, even with the dreariness, even with the promise and delight of the holidays over. In January, I get four weeks off…when no one else in my family does. The deliciousness of having weeks on end of paid reprieve from teaching is, well, delicious. In January I schedule all the doctors’ appointments. In January I clean out the closets. In January, I finish entire manuscripts, read shelves full of books, blog like mad, and, sometimes, relax. In January, everything is back to normal.
In my mind, anyway.
Because it never quite works out like I’m hoping it will. One January I found out in the middle of the night, in the ER, that I needed emergency surgery for a ruptured fallopian tube and that I was no longer pregnant. It was the following January when I got salmonella. I had a Big Important Trip a January after that. This year,?I ended the holidays with the casual thought, “when things get back to normal, I’ll buckle down on the poetry project I’m working on.” I did, for a day or two?until the morning we went to get the kids up and stepped onto soaking wet carpet. The heavy rains had made it into the house, and I spent the next morning pulling up the carpet and moving furniture. That saga has stretched on; contractors tracking mud through the house for ten days now, heavy-duty fans whirring 24 hours a day, and everyone sleeping everywhere. The little one is in a portable crib in our room; the larger offspring is on a mattress on the living room floor, at least, after he gets moved from our bed when Ben goes to bed. Most nights I crawl in with a sweaty nine year old and a zillion stuffies.
I’ve had this thought so many times: I just need to get over this cold/depression/construction project and then things will be “back to normal.” I’m sure we all do this, search for this elusive normalcy that doesn’t actually exist. I’m sure my friend S thought things would be “back to normal” after she had her thyroid removed?until she plunged into three months of insomnia hell. I’m sure my mom thought things would be “back to normal” after she had her hip operation?until she learned she needed another operation later that year.
I’ve been thinking a lot about something my yoga teacher said at a retreat last fall, about how we make these excuses and concessions for the busy times in our lives, as though each time we feel strung out and overextended it’s somehow unusual. “It’s always like this,” she said, and I realized that she was right.
And it’s kiiiind of a depressing thought, I suppose. We humans like routine. We like to think we can do everything. But if we acknowledge that we never know what’s coming down the pike?particularly, frankly, when we have children?maybe we inhabit our time better. Maybe we make better routines, the kind that have some room to wiggle. Maybe we forgive ourselves when we don’t meet our goals and our deadlines. Maybe we approach each day with a little more grace. Maybe we stop putting so much pressure on…January.
I’ve still got two weeks to go of my glorious break. My house looks like a bomb hit it. What’s the point in cleaning? We’ve all had colds. Whenever I start to get some writing done, I’m interrupted by someone needing access to the house, by a phone call. (This blog post has been all kinds of fits and starts!) But it’s all just life. It’s always going to be like this. And in the larger scheme of things, this stuff is, as Pema Ch?dr?n would say, no. Big. Deal.
So, “back to normal,” off you go. For now, I’ll just take the promise of having my children down the hall again before February.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an honest?and a little scary?post on Facebook about my fears that my son Sam, who was then almost two, would be labeled a bully. He was deep into a biting and hitting phase, and I heard another mom at the playground tell her kid to be careful around him.
“You should write an essay about it,” a friend suggested.
So I did. It was published this morning on the Washington Post’s On Parenting column.
We had a long and windy summer, you might even say a lazy one. Instead of filling L?s weeks with expensive camps, feeling frugal, I emptied out the calendar and kept him home a lot of the time while Sam went off to daycare as usual. Mostly, it worked, though increased class caps and chatty students meant I was ignoring him more than engaging him in quality time. He did a lot of reading Calvin and Hobbes on the couch, and a certain amount of begging for Plants vs. Zombies on my phone.
But summer in this part of NorCal is?can I say this??a nothing burger. The climate here is so temperate, the fog a consistent lurker. Summer looks vaguely different from spring in that it?s a bit dryer and a degree or two warmer?or colder, depending how hard the fog lays in. We had some nice times, but we were all holding, like a beacon, our three weeks in Maine at the end of July. There, I knew, we?d have a real summer. There, I knew, we?d have a real vacation (nevermind that The Hubs was working remotely the first week and me, the whole time). My family would be the proverbial village, helping me raise my kids. The weather would be perfect. Etc.
But that didn’t quite happen.
My poor mom wound up with some horrible GI bug the minute we arrived. It went from terrible to worse, and she ended up in the hospital, on IV fluids and antibiotics. My dad needed to be picked up in Boston after his own medical appointment gone awry. And Ben was working. Not ?I?ll finish this memo then take the kids swimming? working, but up at seven on the computer and taking calls all day working. So there I was, in Maine, trying to get the baby excited to play with a very nice 14-year-old he?d decided off the bat he didn?t like, and Leo, who was now reading Calvin and Hobbes on a different couch, was confused why none of his cousins were there. My mom was dying upstairs, I had papers to grade, neither of my children were happy, and I thought to myself: this is the same old crap. This isn?t vacation at all.
Now, I don?t mean to complain. I was so relieved that if my mom was going to get salmonella or e. coli or cholera that it happened while I was there. It?s hard to be so far away from my parents, especially as they start to age. And being in Maine is always wonderful. But it?s a place I don?t associate with, well, stress in quite the way I did this summer. With pleasing everyone, or trying to. With all the crap we moms wrestle with all the time at home.
After that first week, my mom started to slowly, slowly get better. Ben took the next two weeks officially off, thank goodness. And while it took us a few days more to get into a groove, and for one of us to get her anxiety under control (ahem), we ended the trip with 14 people packed into one house, with an elaborate meal-organization system and enough swimming possibilities to satisfy everyone. The cousinness was amazing: Sammy and the other two littles racing around the house, terrorizing everyone, playing at the beach, tantrumming on cue. It was a sea of cheddar bunnies and dirty diapers and sand and delicious, delicious bonding.
L cried the whole way into town when we left. Why did we have to go? Why couldn’t we stay for three more weeks?
That?s the thing: vacations end. Routines resume. I realize now that vacationing with young kids is never going to be a tropical vacation?even if it IS a tropical vacation. You?re still going to have to change diapers and feed everyone and manage emotional meltdowns and all the rest of it.
But if you’re lucky, it?s also going to be sweet, sweet, sweet.
Did you attempt a family vacation this summer? What was the highlight, or low point? Comment it up!
I feel like I could write this entire blog post in one sentence, and that sentence goes like this:
I am so effing grateful for childcare.
But since you’ve all come to know me as a bit more, well, verbose, hear me out.
When L was born, I proudly stayed home from work for almost a year. It was a complicated year, to be sure, mostly because, though we didn’t exactly plan for this, his dad was home too. L was born in Norway at the height of the recession, and when we returned to the States when he was four months old, I had my part-time adjunct teaching gig on hold until I was ready to come back (talk about gratitude! My boss and department, you know who you are), and Ben had…a law degree, a Masters in law, and no promising leads on a job. So that entire first year of L’s life was spent floating between free living arrangements in various places, L’s mom “home” with him and L’s dad depressedly applying for jobs in the attic at my parents’ house (and then less depressedly doing a few consulting gigs and a summer internship).
You know, in life, you look back on times like that and you remember them fondly? But in the moment, it felt really demoralizing.
When Baby S was born, our lives were just different: I had my full-time teaching gig, with a full course load and benefits, so I went back to work at four months, toting my breast pump with me on the train and trying not to cry during my breaks, when I disappeared into a former broom closet to empty my boobs. With Baby S, I started with three days of childcare, then moved to four, and when he went to his current daycare situation, she told me four was no longer possible: full-time or nothing, baby. I remember the promise I made to myself and to her that I’d keep him home on Wednesdays anyway, do my online class work when he napped, make up for it on the weekends.
But, um, well, I mostly haven’t. Mostly, I send him off to childcare every day like he has a job, and pick him up at the end of the day. And probably because of my two X chromosomes, I’ve felt pretty guilty and conflicted about this over the last year.
Yes, I have the kind of job where I could, conceivably, not have five days of childcare. I’m lucky in this regard. I work some weekends no matter how much I work during the week; I work from home a lot. So the standard of 9-5 care out of my house isn’t always what I need, but it’s what I’ve got. Sometimes?gasp!?I drop off the baby and then go to yoga before getting online. I also do a ton of unpaid work (read: marketing a small-press book). And at times, I have felt this guilt about sending S to “Nonny’s” when I have things on my to-do list like self-care and grocery shopping and schlepping my book to bookstores and sending out promo postcards. Why? I guess because much as I would like to pretend I don’t, I fall prey to The Voices as much as any other woman does: you should, you should, you should. And one of The Voices goes, you should be with your child whenever you can be, at the expense of all else.
And another of The Voices goes: you spent a lot more time with L at this age than you do with S now.
Ouch, Voice. True or not, that feels like a low blow.
But here’s the honest, naked truth: I adore Baby S. Like, he is the cutest thing since cute sliced bread these days. His language is exploding; everything is “no mine!” as it’s clutched to his chest. He calls the dudes he sleeps with his “tuffies.” L is “Weo.” Sometimes the first thing he says in the morning, his hot little cheeks scented with delicious baby-drool smell (trust me, it’s the best), is “Wheah Daddy go?” He likes to pick up things like the TV remote, pretend they’re the phone, and say “Nanaaaa?”
He’s a total riot.
And he’s also the most active baby I’ve ever met. In twenty minutes the kid can stop the washing machine right before the spin cycle, call Australia on my phone, screw up the microwave, and tip an entire box of cereal onto the floor. The stroller can’t contain him; he’s learned how to turn on the hose; and when he says “all done” after dinner, we’ve got about thirty seconds to let him out of his high chair (God forbid he sit still for longer than fifteen minutes!) before he starts throwing stuff. I’m telling you, he’s the cutest menace to society you’ve ever seen.
And so oh, how I love bringing him to daycare. At daycare, they play at the park until they’re exhausted. They play at the water table until they’re exhausted. There are eight little terrors for him to compete with. They exhaust each other. He has a great day, every day. It’s so much more than I could give him on my own. And his caregivers? They love him. One day, worried that he was just too much, Nonny told me: “He’s a little ray of sunshine, and I love him.” I nearly cried, she’s so kind. (She even meant it, you guys.)
You know what I love about childcare? It’s having another trusted, loving adult in S’s life. Not so many of us in America are lucky enough to have a true village anymore, extended family and friends all living close by and raising each other’s kids. So I have to pay for mine.
P.P.S. I’m in the midst of my mini-book tour! To see dates and locations I’ll be reading from Little Prayers, check out my Little Prayers Book Tour page. Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon, here I come. Can’t wait.