Archives: motherhood

The Work BEFORE Work


There are times in motherhood, times involving cursing and sweating and frantic rubbing at stains, when you must weigh the situation at hand and determine if:
a) you are actively dying or
b) someone out there has it worse than you.

These times demand your careful consideration because otherwise, you can become overwhelmed by the seemingly intractable, filthy circumstance you find yourself in and you can go mad with the injustice of it all.

There are times, too, other times, when you are so exhausted, so physically worn out by the 2 am wakeups and demands for more milk, more crackers, more goddamned renditions of “Hush Little Baby”, that your decision making becomes impaired, and you find it difficult to perform these tiny feats of analysis.

These are the times that try women’s souls.

Say, for instance, you know in your heart of hearts that a balanced diet is more than just a good idea– it is insurance against the runny mess you will have to wipe from your child’s butt in a few hours. But, say, for instance, even though you know this, you still feed your child not yet three feet tall a full cup of blueberries, some watermelon, a peach smoothie, and some dried mango and nothing else in a 24-hour period.  Never mind that you’ve tried to coax her into eating the tender meatloaf you lovingly formed with your own hands and have cut into small bites suitable for her adorably small mouth. Of course you know this is a diet better suited to the chronically constipated, or maybe a species of tree sloth, but your endurance is withering thanks to sleep deprivation.  You are too defeated, too plain old worn out to do the arithmetic of:

Needing to be somewhere on time on Wednesday + too much fruit on Tuesday = disaster.

Say, too, that you have forgotten that the babysitter is on vacation. And say you’ve already packed up the kid, and her lunchbox, and her diaper bag, and your own lunch bag, and you park the car at that asshole angle that says “But I’m only running in for a minute!” and you haul the kid out and all her seven changes of clothing (because, don’t forget, you’re in the middle of potty training and life has been reduced to mad dashes between potties). And say, for further instance, that you are tired of wearing the same old baggy post-partum shirts to work so you finally zazz it up a bit with some tailored slacks and a crisp blouse but now you have to walk through your sitter’s yard – where she keeps chickens, god bless her homesteading soul- in that outfit, your bags banging against your legs, to check to make sure your sitter IS still on vacation and you haven’t lost your mind. And say you haven’t lost your mind (hallelujah! A minor victory!) and you remember, right, your sitter IS still on vacation, and now you must come up with Plan B. So, say you pack up the kid, who is quite fond of her sitter and the chickens and most definitely does NOT want to get back into the car, and you text your client and beg forgiveness for needing to bring your kid to work today.

Say, too, that you are so preoccupied with the fact that you are going to have to be productive and deadline-conscious while keeping your curious little angel under your desk for three hours, you miss the turn into the parking garage at your client’s building. Another bit of dangerous math will enter your head: the construction downtown plus a new series of stops and one-ways yields a potential for a potty accident. You are now sweating through your crisp, new blouse.

And there, just as you round the last traffic-clogged corner and descend into the cool darkness of the garage, you see it. In the backseat, your child’s face is bent into a look of concern. Her tiny fist rises into the air, her thumb tucked beneath her forefinger, slowly waving, like a flag of defeat, the toddler sign language for “potty”.

As you snake your way into a parking stall, The Fisher Price carseat mirror confirms what you can already smell. There will be poop. Lots of it.

Though you are still dressed in the uniform of an office working lady, you will now need to assume the temporary role as head of FEMA. What you need to know is: How big is this mess? How long will it take you to clean it up? What’s in the car that can be used as a shovel? A bag? A hazmat kit? Is there clean water nearby?

You will do a tiny bit more math. You will realize this is not the worst day of your life. No, the worst day is still yet to come. That day, you will be hugging the toilet bowl, puking your guts out while your toddler stands close by and shoves something insistently into your ear, or maybe your lower back, while whining about the PBS station break. No, that day, after you’re done vomiting the last bit of water from your system, you will also be washing everyone’s pajamas, sheets, the dishtowels, the bathroom towels, and anything else you grabbed that day to mop up regurgitated toast. You’ll be doing this in between trips to the bathroom and to the kitchen to warm soup and refill juice cups. So, really, that day is not this day.

This day, you will have all the poop contained in a wet bag. You will have remembered to pack that, of course, but no wipes. So you will daub at your daughter’s butt with some old Chipotle napkins you stashed in the glove box half a year ago, and you will use the water from your water bottle to moisten them. When your daughter whimpers and gives you the sign language for “hurt”, realize that maybe you are trading efficiency for hapless brute force. You will realize it is hopeless to try to get all the poop off, absolutely hopeless. You will pray that the Johnson and Johnson’s baby shampoo wafting off her adorably curly head will be enough to mask the smell of excrement that will surely permeate her pink and green toddler leggings for the rest of the day.

And just as you extract yourself from the backseat where you will have been performing this triage with your breath held for three minutes straight, your daughter will crinkle up her face again, and give you the “potty” sign with her hand. Again you will try to be mindful: you are not dying. It is only poop. You can do this.

Your instinct to comfort your daughter will be duking it out with the stopwatch ticking in your head, because, after all, you were supposed to start work twenty minutes ago. And then there is the decency issue: you are floors and floors below an actual potty, to say nothing of toilet paper. If the first batch of blueberry fueled crap you gingerly tucked into that zippered bag was any indication, this next round is NOT going to be pretty. However, you are a mom before you are anyone’s office monkey, so you will grab your half-naked kid by the armpits, squat her in front of the car, and you will tell her to go, right there, on the parking garage floor. And boy, how she will go.

You will do more mental calisthenics. Drying time for kid diarrhea? Roughly the same amount of time you might need, say, to perform your job today? Availability of rubber gloves? Negative? How about a half-eaten bag of dry cereal you happen to have stuffed into the console weeks back? Could you empty that out into the carseat snack cup and use it to scoop up the poop? Yes? Well, then maybe you will NOT have to be that mom that left a steaming pile of shit in a parking garage.

Oh, and make sure while you are re-gathering the lunchboxes and bags and your purse to repeat the litany of gratitudes you have designed for such occasions. Be sure to take a minute and be mindful that you have not washed upon a foreign shore’s lands in a rubber raft, or have to worry about being shot for having a tail light out. Repeat over and over again the refrain of the white privileged working mom: This too, shall pass. It’s not that bad. At least you have a job. And a car to take you there. And a healthy baby to pour out all the binder clips beneath your ergonomically designed office chair.

Push down the urge to cry that stems from having to be the torch bearer for the leagues of female workers that are lined up behind you, convinced they can “have it all”. Sit there in that yawning divide between a 21st century woman’s life and her 19th century work culture, and take a few deep, cleansing breaths. Be grateful for the invention of washing machines, and indoor plumbing, and plastics. Congratulate yourself on having had a few spare napkins in the car. Be exhausted. Be happy for your kid’s gleaming colon. Spot check your new blouse for stains. Now “go to work”, even though you’ve been at work nonstop for the last 23 months, 19 days, and 6 hours.



You guys, I’m going to be part of this national storytelling event in May called Listen To Your Mother. LTYM is sort of like the Moth, but all about moms, which is not nearly as Hallmark card-y as I am making it sound.  There will be no sixteen-inch rises on acid washed denim or “Live, Love, Laugh” painted on driftwood, just good old fashioned stories about sex, drugs, and motherhood.  Emphasis on the motherhood part, probably, but, hey, you never know.

Day Four. Thanks, Ma.

Dear Mom,
Remember when you used to chase us around the house with a raw fish on a newspaper for fun? Well, I found myself doing the vegetarian version of that this morning. I aggressively shoved a Chanterelle mushroom in the face of a four year old and made that weird “EEEEEEEEEEEEE” sound you used to make. Something has come full circle, ma.

I had a bit of an epiphany this morning. Babysitting kids is like making pancakes. You shower all this attention on the first one and you try for perfection. And you nearly break down in tears because it’s all half-cooked and misshapen and the pan’s not really hot enough or oiled enough and you can’t believe you’ve failed so epically at something that you think should come so naturally. But you try again, and again, and you get better as you go. By the middle of the batch, you’re really getting into your groove. The heat’s just right. You’re functioning like a well oiled machine. You’re not even thinking about it. One hand is flipping pancakes and the other is pouring juice. You’re feet are probably dancing to Paul Simon in the kitchen and your mouth is answering questions about why the sky is blue and your brain is already thinking about what to make for dinner. That’s what these past four days have been like: making pancakes.

Mom, do you know what I did this morning? I sighed contentedly when Elton John played on Pandora. Elton John, ma. I think you know this about me, but I really hate Elton John. Billy Joel, too. All those piano-playing soft -rock-music-station artists. You probably know that Black Flag and Fugazi is more my style for cooking music in the kitchen. But, honest to God, I sighed contentedly when Sir Elton came on. I just needed something familiar and cozy hitting my eardrums at that moment because everything else was feeling like I couldn’t do it right. Maybe Sir Elton reminded me of you when YOU were in the kitchen making eight metric tons of pancakes for four hungry, annoying kids who were asking you where milk came from and how much adult turtles weigh and why we weren’t having eggs and why the sky is blue SIMULTANEOUSLY. My blood pressure dropped down to normal when that song came on and I was able to make those pancakes in the shape of pumpkins without breaking a sweat because of “Tiny Dancer”. What the hell? You didn’t warn me THAT would happen when I had kids.

This is my problem, mom. I’ve got this thing for perfectionism. It’s a real problem. Seriously. It’s been getting in the way of everything, babysitting included.

So, every once in a while, when kids kick my ass, I feel compelled to write you these letters to both thank you for handing down to me that curse and that gift.

I know those middle years were tortuous on us both. I know mental illness is a deep river that runs through our family, and, though I couldn’t appreciate it at the time, I was being taught a very valuable lesson back then with all that shit we went through. More than most kids my age, I could appreciate a pretty full range of emotions because of those years. You scared the shit out of me, ma. Kids don’t usually run away from home because things are all peachy keen. But, though it’s the strangest thing I’ve ever admitted, I’m grateful for for those years. If nothing else, I’ve learned massive amounts of empathy and gratitude from those years. That’s what all these years in the secluded Pacific Northwest have taught me: gratitude. It’s why I had to move here. Nowadays, I work with ease, I live with ease, I love with ease. There was nothing really easy about our lives together back then, was there? So, I’ve finally gotten what I always needed, just much later in life. And that gratitude has spilled over into (finally) gratitude for you and dad too. Even through the shit (and the shit you continue to struggle with), I am able to see you as humans, humans who did the very best they could with their limited educations and finite patience and vices and family history of depression and whole generations of tragedy and struggle handed down. I can appreciate all that now. Moving out here has backed me up from my microscopic scrutiny of the first part of my life. I can see a much bigger picture now. I can see who you both were before you had me, who you became after you had us, and most importantly, how hard you tried to make everything in our lives as fun-filled and joyous as you could humanly manage. I can see your mania for what it was now and I am cultivating a love for it.

I’m going to guess you’ve either blocked those years out, or you so deeply agonize over them still, you don’t quite know how to talk about them. Well, time and 3,000 miles (and thousands of dollars in therapy) has helped me to understand quite a bit about those years. So, even though they still pain you, they don’t pain me as much anymore. My higher self has emerged out here, and she is learning forgiveness every day.

Anywho, thanks for making zaniness a very regular part of my life. It feels more normal to chase a child with Chanterelle mushroom than it does to do shop for appliances and pay for a mortgage. These past few days, I’ve been learning to let go of every single expectation for how this would go. I’m not perfect, and perfect is frustrating to kids anyway. I hope one day you can shed just a little bit of your prefect self too and feel free to human and fallible. While I am grateful for having learned how to do hospital corners and how to set a table properly and how keep a house clean, I also know how exhausting it can be to keep that routine up.

I’m hoping what these kids take away, just like I did, is all the good times, and leave the not so good times for later on in their lives to sort through. Thanks for everything, mom. Good and bad.

Your Oldest Daughter