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.
The other day, I asked my friend Sho, founder of my Indivisible?activism group, what political stuff she was working on.
“Honestly,” she said, “these days I’m mostly just trying to advocate for my daughter to get the school services she needs.”
I doubt she realized it at the time, but her response shook something up in me. It helped me answer some of the many questions that have been floating around in my mind over the past few weeks, these weeks of crippling wildfires and crippling hurricanes and crippling dread. I’ve been more engaged politically since this past election than I have in my entire life. But somehow, lately, with so much tragedy, I’ve been finding myself desperate to understand the best way to really be an activist.
When Sho told me that most of her activism time was focused on advocating for her own kid, it occurred to me: activism is personal. I mean, duh, right? But it is. We pick our causes based on what’s most pressing in our personal lives. I fought hard, for example, against the repeal of Obamacare. I sent texts I feared would be received poorly to my many relatives in Maine, lobbying them to call Senator Susan Collins. I contacted my own senators about a million times, too, even though I knew they were on the same page as me.
Why did I do all of that?
Because I have a pre-existing condition, an autoimmune disease I’ve had since my teens. I know what it’s like to be denied health insurance over and over again. You know what that makes you feel like? Shit. It makes you terrified that because you have this weird disorder where your hands turn white when they’re cold that you won’t have insurance when you have an unexpected heart attack or car accident. It makes you feel unhealthy, even when you’re walking around strong as an ox. It makes you incredibly grateful to have resources, like parents who could bail you out if you got a $40,000 hospital bill. It makes you deeply aware that most people aren’t so lucky. The mandate, under Obamacare, that people with preexisting conditions not be denied was a Godsend for me. Sure, Obamacare is far from perfect, but on a very basic level, it gave me something I didn’t have before: security. We often come at politics like this: this is what affects me, my kids, my community.
And I don’t think that’s all bad, as long as it doesn’t make us myopic. (Example: being staunchly anti-gun control just because no one in YOUR family has been killed in a mass shooting.) And if your life is pretty good, it might be tempting not to…do anything. But we’re in a time when no one can afford to sit idly by and not do anything
So what’s the best way to be an activist?
1) Identify?your issue(s).?My delightful friend Annie Burke is a huge champion for the outdoors. She organizes kids to, well, go outside. And so recently, fueled by this deep love for the outdoors, she started her own blog and weekly action list called The Sun Rises. You can sign up for her updates?here.?I love that Annie took something personal to her?environmental advocacy?and turned it into actionable items for good. What’s your biggest concern these days? What are you going to do about it? THAT’s where you focus your attention.
2)?Schedule your activism. There are so many campaigns happening all the time, and so many important causes. If you’re like me, you might get five to ten different emails a day urging you to call, write, tweet, donate, organize. When Trump came into office last January, and I decided I was going to fight like hell, I started doing so much activism I stopped writing, got behind on my schoolwork, let my house go to the dogs, and did crazy things like transport my kid in the Baby Bjorn to San Francisco at rush hour to stand in front of Senator Feinstein’s office shouting with a bunch of Berkeley hippies for twenty minutes before going home again. (If paid protest wasn’t fake news, I’d have made a bundle.)
The reality is that you can’t be an activist every minute of every day, and faced with that, you might just…stop doing anything at all. The solution? Schedule your activism. Join a group. Go to a Protest Playdate. Set aside Tuesday nights, or ten minutes every morning. Give yourself a limit: five calls per week, 20 postcards per month, twelve Resistbot texts per day. Whatever works for you, but just DO IT. (As I say to my students, with regard to turning in essays: it’s always better to do something than to do nothing.)
3)?Give money, if you can. Turns out money DOES make the world go ’round. While donating isn’t activism in the strictest sense of the word, if getting out there and raising hell isn’t in your wheelhouse, then support the people who do. Personally, I think that supporting local businesses, buying sustainable products, supporting organic farmers?all of this is its own form of activism. But donating to the political candidates of your choice, to organizations doing work you believe in, to your kids’ schools, to hurricane relief, to wildfire relief?even more so.
4) Remember ALL members of your community. I was pretty heartened, last week, by the incredible outpouring of support for victims of the Northbay fires. At L’s school, parents bustled about filling boxes with goods. “Donate” buttons cropped up all over. The Bay Area community rallied heavily around our friends up north. And while it felt like Armageddon here, I nonetheless had this sense that if we were all going down, we were all going down together. One incredibly important way to be an activist is simply to take care of the members of your community, whoever they are. That may mean remembering that even though your kid is doing great at his school, another kid with special needs might not be. Or it may mean that while your family feels welcomed by the soccer team, the one kid of color on that team might feel less welcome.
The most rewarding thing I did in 2016 was contribute to a gift drive for needy families by buying a Christmas gift for an anonymous junior-high aged girl whose younger sibling attended L’s school. Going to Marshall’s and picking out the fluffiest socks I could find, the cutest underwear, the games she’d asked for, and some other silly little things that would have made me happy when I was 13 is one of my best memories from 2016. And to put that in perspective, in 2016 I had the baby I’d been wanting for six years.?
5) Engage in self-care. Burnout? It’s real. We’re assaulted daily. We see evidence in our own communities of climate change, while elected officials deny its existence. We see vitriolic, nasty fights between our Republican friends and our Democrat friends on social media. We despair of America every being a unified country again. We learn that Harvey Weinstein is a sexual predator. We remember that our president is, too. It’s a lot. Add that to our personal and professional difficulties?a baby not sleeping through the night, a lost job, an argument with a partner?and it can feel like a little too much. The antidote? Take a break. Going to Esalen for six days might not be in my budget, but I’ve got my own mini-spa date in October planned (ooh! One in November, too). And practically every night, I sit with B on the couch and watch an episode of The Office.?We laugh. (We also fold laundry).
Most of all, we try to remember that we have each other, that we’re Americans, and that we’ll get through this. And then we get back to work.
How are YOU being an activist these days? I’d love to hear from you.