Mother in Chief

Mother in Chief

Between past and present

Monday, January 27, 2014

I woke up in my old house on the hill the other day. It was familiar like the shape of my toes and also confusing, like trying to identify the vegetarian options on a menu etched in foreign words in an especially carnivorous country.

I haven’t lived in that house in seven years.

For a split second, an entire world existed. I was married to my high school sweetheart. I typed in a red-walled office. I had two babies. With my eyes yet to open in the morning glow, I could see the way the light sliced through the vertical blinds and landed on the dresser. I could anticipate the sponginess of the carpeting if I’d pushed myself towards the bathroom. I could hear static from the baby monitor.

There was heaviness with each inhale. There was the ache of a strained marriage. There was the uncertainty of hospitals that cinched my world for four-and-a-half years. It was so real and yet, it felt wrong. 

That’s because it wasn't real.

And as quickly as it sprung up, that world vanished. Once I opened my eyes, I was in my current house, married to a different man. My world that includes four kids and two chickens and a rescue dog appeared and relaxed me.

I teeter between these worlds consciously and regularly as I polish my manuscript.

During the day as I write, I live in that house on the hill with the trumpet flowers that line the fence. I am married to the man I made babies with. We trek to the hospital and doctor appointments and blood tests. Our relationship slowly disintegrates as each of us learns to accept our son’s medical diagnosis and physical limitations.

And when I stop typing and editing and shaping that story for the day, I am married to a different man. We help our kids with homework, drive them to swimming lessons, and read Lemony Snicket before bed. And our marriage is new, strong, and brimming with communication, intimacy, and love. We proactively see a family therapist to keep it that way.

I haven't decided if this teetering is healthy or unhealthy, good or bad. But it’s real. And some days, like the other day, it’s very confusing. Straddling these two worlds isn’t forever, but some days I wish the past was just the past.

My big crack

Friday, September 06, 2013

Like so many others, my phone has a big crack. Hyper-saturation and blurry are the camera’s permanent settings, and voices crackle in my ear in a way that makes me furrow my brow while listening. In other words, it’s crap.

In order to remedy these problems and elevate my phone a tool I enjoy using, I made my way to the Sprint store earlier this week. As the guy working there made his way into my account without my handy account number, he needed some of my super secret passcodes, which aren’t all that secret if you knew me back when and grew up in the same town that I did. It’s possible that you know what street I lived on, my pet’s name, as well as the make and model of my first car.

It was a 1982 Volkswagon Rabbit (please don’t break into my Sprint account unless you plan on paying my bill or purchasing me a new phone because mine is crap for the reasons I mentioned above). My Rabbit was dark green with a cassette player and a sunroof in which my ponytail would escape and ripple in the breeze. It was awesome and it was freedom and I blared The Smiths and New Order as loudly as the speakers could handle. This is what it looked like, only mine was green.

“There was a car called a Rabbit?” he clucked in disbelief.

“Yes, I’m that old, okay.”

“Um, I just never heard of it. Really, a Rabbit?”

“Moving on now…What can we do about my phone?”

I’m going to be 40 next week. I likely had my driver’s license before that guy was even born. And I’m okay with it. I’m actually excited about it. Not everyone gets to be 40. Honestly, I feel pretty damn lucky. Sadly, there is nothing he can do about my phone until next July when I’m eligible for an upgrade. So like turning 40, I’ll embrace my phone—the psychedelic photos (here’s one of R in his new glasses),
text more and talk less, and try to enjoy my big crack, which I’m pretty sure it’s not the new cleavage. Not everything is shiny and new. I’m learning more about that every single day as I need to wear my own glasses more often and must turn on every single light while doing anything related to seeing, and feel achy when I move from the horizontal to the verticle position each morning.

Big kids

Friday, August 23, 2013

We left sunny San Carlos and headed to Half Moon Bay where I’d hoped it would also be sunny (I was wrong). The kids had asked to go to Bean Hollow State Beach, but since I was the only adult overseeing four kids, I opted for the more-contained option outside Sam’s Chowder House. The water ripples like cake icing there and does not roll or tumble.

I spread blankets on the sand and tucked the corners in around me to minimize the fog’s penetrating cold—never mind that the kids were in swimsuits and belly-buttoned in ocean water. I rested my head against a large piece of driftwood. I opened my book and read. It was peaceful.

No one threw sand. No one bit anyone. No one whacked anyone with a shovel—they don’t do that stuff anymore. When they were hungry, they rinsed their hands in ocean water and asked for food using phrases like: “May I please have my sandwich now?” After I handed out caprese sandwiches, “Thank you” fell from their tongues. We would have been fine at Bean Hollow. They would have been fine at Bean Hollow without me.

It’s lovely to have self-sufficient children. It’s also a little bit sad to know that my kids don’t need me that much anymore. No one wanted my hands to build a sand castle or my eyes to scour for crabs. I was simply the conduit for their beach day. I was the planner, the sandwich-maker, the driver. Soon enough, they won’t even need me for that...I should ask my mother about this. I suspect she’ll know just what I’m talking about.

Living with us

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

When my eyelids open in the morning, I first notice the light. It’s not harsh, and instead of wanting to hide from it, I roll toward it and immediately notice the green. Leaves from the London Plane diffuse the brightness. I imagine I’m inside of a tree house instead of my bedroom. When C climbed into my bed one morning last week, we wondered how many leaves we could see. We also wondered why the barking, howling dog next door was barking and howling…

So much has happened in the last five years. I went to graduate school. I got divorced. I found dance. I endured 40 mediocre dates and one spectacular one that ended my merry-go-round. From there, life has settled down—my boyfriend and I got engaged in December, we moved in together in February, got married in May, bought a house in June and moved into a place with a big tree that could accommodate two adults and four kids (the house, not the tree).

As my world achieves the stability I’ve been reaching for, I am reminded that there will always be hiccups and challenges. The universe and its inhabitants are unpredictable. We just found out that my step-kids’ mom is moving 90 miles away. Instead of spending half of their time with their mom and half of the time with us, the kids will see her a few weekends a month and during some school breaks. In essence, they will live us.

The first emotion I feel is disbelief. I cannot imagine moving away from my boys. When my ex and his girlfriend moved in together, R was concerned that I would move away, as if I was perhaps obsolete now that one of his two houses had a nuclear family. I gently explained that it doesn’t work that way. The next emotion is sadness. The kids and their mom are losing their day-to-day time with each other—the daily routines around school and homework, rituals synonymous with childhood, rituals I’m gearing up for as we approach the first day of school.

Sure kids are resilient, but the only two people to really know the ramifications of this change are the kids themselves. And probably not until they’re adults. In the meantime, perhaps they’ll join C as we count leaves, right before their dad and I hustle them off to get ready for school.

A little leg

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

It was Monday night and it was hot. Really hot. As I rummaged through my closet getting ready for dance class, none of my regular outfits seemed appropriate. My linen pants were too heavy. My flowing ones would keep the heat in. The exercise ones would stick to my legs. Just touching the material made me grimace. I knew that it wasn’t going to get cooler as the night progressed. Body heat contained in our class would only push the temperature up, even if the outside temperature dropped a degree or two during the evening.

So I did something I haven’t done in perhaps 10 or 20 years—I wore a skirt that showed my knees and a half of my thighs. Gasp! I know it sounds silly, even as I tap out the tale here, but fear or shyness or some other ridiculous emotion has prevented me from displaying my legs (and wearing the right clothes on hot days). Whenever I have worn a short skirt, boots were a constant companion. Or tights. Or both. Sure, I’ve worn a bathing suit (water is just as good as a sarong), but not without the accompanying anxiety-driven perspiration as I moved to and from my towel.

I suspect all of us have that thing we don’t like about ourselves. Some people use cover up to hide their complexion, a hat to cover thinning hair, or avoid sandals to hide toes. We wear baggy clothes to hide our shape, and heels to give the impression that we’re taller. The list goes on… But for me, it’s been my legs. For years, I’ve worn long skirts, and pants, or capris. I could outline the boring details of what specifically I don’t like about my legs, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s in my head. I can intellectually say it’s ridiculous, but my emotions have won this battle over and over again.

But on that particular night, I wore the short skirt. As I walked toward the building, I’d wished I’d brought a safety pair of pants in my bag just in case I chickened out. Once inside, I felt as if I wore a gigantic sign above my head pointing to my legs and their flaws. I held my breath as I removed my shoes and self-consciously moved between other bodies as I waited for the music to lead me away from my critical thoughts.

It worked. The music grabbed me and I forgot to care that my bare legs were visible. The pink fabric swished across my skin as I moved. It made waves as I spun. It floated as I leaped. I was alive in a new way. Maybe I’m ready to outgrow caring what other people think—perhaps that’s one of the benefits of approaching 40. 

In the arms of a stranger

Thursday, October 25, 2012

There are no more days where I get to hold little boys in overalls. My littlest boy is six, and while he likes me to tickle him endlessly, he is not really a little boy. He reads books with words like veterinarian and consequently. He ties his own shoes. He likes spinach salad with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, just like his big brother. My big kid has reached an age where he rolls his eyes at me, rarely holds my hand, and finds making bruschetta and drawing maps much more interesting than reading Richard Scarry together. Thankfully both of my kids still like that I read to them before bed. We’re currently engrossed in “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

So since I no longer have little boys in overalls, yesterday was all that more wonderful and perplexing.

After school, a friend and I (and our combined four kids) acquired treats from a bakery in Hayes Valley and then wandered to a lovely San Francisco park across the street. A variety of kids and their families came and went while we relished the warm, breezeless October afternoon on benches adjacent to the play structure. The kids played tag. They climbed and swung. They tossed a coveted bottle cap and had elaborate rules to support their improvised games.

Maybe an hour into our adventure, a dad with his little boy arrived at the park. The little boy was in blue and white striped overalls—identical to ones R wore when he was about two years old. This little boy had curly blond wisps covering head and he ran and climbed as well as the bigger kids. Before we left, I hoisted myself into the rope structure so that my friend could take a couple of snapshots of me and my boys. The little boy in overalls wanted to be part of our photo. He hustled up the structure and directly into my lap.

His dad tried to retrieve him, but he clung to me. I said I didn’t mind if he was in our family picture, so he stayed perched on my lap. I was reminded of what it felt like to have a little boy. When the shots were taken, I peeled him off of my lap and handed him down to his dad. He reached for me like a child does when it seeks the attention of the other parent—both arms outstretched and body leaning towards the desired torso. I took him and he clung to me, a stranger. As I held him, I told him about how R used to have the same overalls that he was wearing. Then I said we had to leave and gave him back to his dad.

He took my hand and said he wanted to go with me. I said maybe we’d see him again at the park another day. He didn’t want to let go of my hand. When his dad tried to pick him up, he ran ahead yelling, “No, no, no. I go too.”

As lovely as it was to have a little boy’s body in my arms, clinging to me, wanting to hold my hand, sit on my lap, reminding me of something lost through the accumulation of time, I felt bad for the dad. I have no idea where his mom was, but I can’t help but wonder if he lives with her all the time or part of the time or none of the time. It made me think about my own kids. C was younger than that boy when my ex and I split, and even now, almost four years later, my kids still ask me why Dad and I had to get divorced.

Time machine

Friday, October 19, 2012

Have you ever had one of those moments that shifted the sense of time, so that you were somehow in your current world and also somehow decades away?

That happened to me yesterday. It was such an ordinary moment. I was at the carwash and the sun was oppressive. There was just one bench in the shade and two people already occupied it. But surely I could fit between them with my book and my purse and it would be fine for the next 15 minutes as we waited. I asked and they obliged, each edging to the outer sides of the bench and I maneuvered between them on that waffled metal bench.

I didn’t really look at either of them, but once I was seated the woman to my right spoke to her husband in their foreign language as he came to join us. The three of us moved over, making room for him as well. Their conversation in foreign nouns and verbs transported me to my childhood where I was somewhere, like Burger King, with Italian grandparents when I had no idea what they said to each other.

Her perfume and the thickness of her arm made me want to lean into her softness as tears welled behind my sunglasses. I ached for my grandmother and my childhood more three decades in my past. I wanted to lean into her. I wanted to talk to her and try to explain to her what I was feeling and I swear her husband said “lasagna” several times, even thought I’m certain they were speaking Russian or Czech and definitely not Italian. It was so real.

The man to my left got up to retrieve his car, and the older couple and I sat on that bench at the carwash while “Don’t Stop Believing” played softly from the speaker near the exit sign. I loved her thick old lady necklace and her near-white orthopedic open-toed sandals with the stockings. I loved her in that moment. She was my grandmother and I was four years old. I so wanted to hug her and for a moment be hugged by that woman. My own grandmother approaches 100 years. I haven't heard her speak Italian since my grandfather died more than 15 years ago, and I didn’t even recognize her last time I visited her. She was hunched in a wheelchair in the nursing home she now lives in. She was nothing like the grandmother who lives in my memories.

A few minutes later, the couple got up. As they walked away from me, more than thirty years were instantly added to my age and I was alone on the bench.

The lost noun

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Someone who loves is a lover. Someone who fails is a failure. Someone who disappoints is a disappointment. Someone who drinks is a drinker. Someone who learns is a student. Someone who teaches is a teacher. But what is someone who experiences a loss?

There certainly are a lot of adjectives to describe that person—sad, despondent, bereft, grief-stricken, let down, wounded, hurt, scared, worried—but no nouns come to mind. There are nouns that describe certain kinds of loss. A woman who loses her husband is a widow. Someone who loses a limb is an amputee. But I cannot find that definitive word that encompasses the common life experience of loss. Or more specifically, my loss.

The quest for this particular word started as an exercise from a book I'm reading. The objective was to describe myself using nouns--no adjectives allowed! I came up with daughter, friend, mother, divorcée (silly word, but it is the noun to describe a divorced person), dancer, and writer. But I also wanted a word that encompassed emotional trauma. Without a noun to represent that part of my life, my list doesn’t describe me completely.

When I pushed my son into the world nine years ago, I lost the motherhood I’d hoped for. Lost isn’t a noun, but it encompasses that feeling of not remembering how to breathe or sleep or eat. It encompasses the frustration around having to digest medical jargon. It encompasses the nauseating ache when wandering the hospital looking for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. It encompasses the shock and disbelief after doctors said my baby only had half a heart and needed several operations. It encompasses that feeling of knowing that every dream I ever had around parenthood was just that—a dream. Yes, I know, birth certificates don’t come with return or exchange policies nor do marriages come with any kind of money-back guarantee.

Life is filled with loss, and when we are faced with it, we are, for a period of time (or forever) something. We’d hoped for something, dreamed of something, and then were given something else. What is that something called?

A friend suggested the noun I’m looking for is survivor. I like that suggestion, in theory. Someone who survives a loss, whatever its magnitude is a survivor. But that word implies past tense, and that the survivor has moved through the loss. But what are we while we’re are in the middle of that emotional trauma? While we are struggling with the loss? Or floundering as a result of a loss? A struggler? A flounder-er? A mourner? We are probably a struggling, floundering, mourning daughter/ friend/ mother/ divorcée/ dancer/ writer. Those are all valid adjectives, but I’m searching for something more definitive than a word that can be easily swapped out by flipping through the pages of a thesaurus.

I cannot let it go. I want to name that thing so that I can complete my list, creating a full and accurate description of me. My loss is just as much a part of me as the way I leap and spin during dance class. It is a part of my essence, the way that writing is part of the way I communicate. A list describing me without including a word around loss, is like trying to describe a sunrise without the word light.

Sure my loss has changed over the years as my son has grown, and it no longer swallows me with every inhale or haunts me every time I close my eyes. It’s chronic, not acute. The noun I'm looking for, I believe, is human.

To be fair, human does not technically complete the exercise. Being human means many things, one of which is someone who experiences loss. But considering human just might be the right noun reminded me that my loss isn’t unique or any more extraordinary than my friend’s loss when her baby died. It isn’t any more unique than my other friend’s losses with each of her failed fertility treatments. My loss isn’t any more painful or stressful than my friends' losses who have children along the autism spectrum. Experiencing loss is part of what unites us as humans. It’s also part of what makes us individuals and steers us as we identify with all the other nouns on our lists.

Selfish hour

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In the last two weeks, I've been to the diner hosted by R's 3rd Grade class. I've read books to C's Kindergarten class twice and helped teach the last Garden Science lesson. I've been to two year-end picnics and to the Senior Center with R's class where I watched them sing songs and read books to their senior friends.

As a result, I'd prefer to spend the very last hour of the very last day of school alone, surrounded by quiet, and not at the talent show. I won't be curled up with a book or having a nap (as nice and luxurious as those things sound). Instead, I'll be gathering blankets and towels, beach toys, extra clothes, hats, and sunscreen. I'll be making lunches and assembling snacks and filling water bottles, getting ready of our own end-of-the-year celebration at the beach with friends.

When the show is over and I have missed out, I will have to take comfort in knowing that I will have the remaining days, weeks, and months of summer to witness my talented kid.

The giant house we'll never have

Monday, June 11, 2012

Car rides offer a time to talk about important world matters. Especially those matters that are of particular importance to little boys. On our way home from a friend’s house one evening, C started talking about marriage… something to do with Justin Beiber… something he had heard in kindergarten. Then he started giggling. I knew he wanted to say something more, but he hesitated. I urged him to speak.

“Wouldn’t it be great if you and A got married and Dad and S got married?” He giggled some more, and after a minute, I asked, “Would you like that?” He said yes. Then R chimed in excitedly. “No, no, wouldn’t it be great if Mom and Dad got married!?” I opened the window, tilted my face towards the breeze, and took a long drag of fresh air before answering.

“Mom and Dad used to be married. That’s how we got you two,” I said. I couldn’t see his face in the backseat, but I could hear his expression. He went from jubilation to a pout.

“So why aren’t you married anymore?” It was an accusation, more than a question. I said that grown-up relationships are complicated, and that mom and dad love them both very much.

Whether you're divorced, married, or in a committed relationship, grown-up relationships are complicated. They are even more complicated when there are children. Kids don't care about any of that grown-up stuff. What they do care about is that parents have complicated their lives, too. They end up with two houses and two sets of clothing and they get shuttled back and forth.

My kids love S and A and A’s kids. All of those extra people have become part of my kids’ family. I'm pretty sure that C doesn't remember a time before A or S. R does. And while R likes the idea of his parents getting back together, I suspect he also knows that if his dad and I got back together (and that’s not happening), he would lose those other people that he has come to love, too.

I’m sure what he’d really like is for all of us to live in one giant house together. Since that will never happen, no matter where I live or who else is in their lives, I will keep encouraging my kids to speak when they hesitate and try to make sure that my house, my car, and my arms are always a safe place to say all the things that can and should be talked about.