Freshly Pressed, and Thoughts on Being Super Mom

In the past year or so since I’ve let my blog go dormant, I’ve gotten a few notifications from WordPress. Sometimes they included legitimate comments from readers, but the more occasional ones were all spam, and I thought the email I received from the site a little over a week ago would be no different.

But it was. So. Different.

Krista, an editor at WordPress, somehow found an essay I wrote over two years ago. She liked it so much she wanted to feature it on Freshly Pressed. This digital age is a funny one, and for a minute after I read her email, I thought, “Oh, ‘Krista’ is probably just a computer, trolling sites for key words.” But then I read her email again, and she actually sounded like a human being, who had actually been moved by my writing.

When it hit Freshly Pressed later that week, I started getting comments, and “likes” and reblogs, and followers that trumped my previous numbers several times over.

All this attention for something I wrote such a long time ago has made me feel like I’ve woken up in a room filled with bright lights and party hats. As soon as I sit up, everyone shouts, “Surprise!”

I didn’t know how much I needed that kind of attention, but I did! It’s set my brain on fire.

All around me, the world is loud. My children are loud. My husband is loud. My tea kettle is loud. My new phone, because its speaker is not yet clogged with apple sauce, is loud. My dog has acquired a barking problem, and I’ll be damned if she is not loud. My own thoughts are loud, too.

But for the last year or so, I have been quiet – not writing, barely investing in reading – because if there is anything I want right now, it’s quiet. I want my brain to be quiet, my life, especially when I am alone, to be quiet. Pictures instead of words, if you please.

One could say from all this talk that I am depressed, or not coping very well with the chaos that is life with three young children, but the reality is that most of the time, I love my life. I am deeply grateful for everything in it, painfully aware that in just a few years, I am really going to miss the noise and the mess that trails after my children at every turn. I breathe in the sweet smell of my two year old every night, and I revel in how simple it all is right now. No one is begging for an iPhone; no one’s rolling their eyes; no one is sneaking out, or getting bullied, or having their hearts broken. It’s pretty great, really, in the grand scheme of things.

But my thought life, and therefore, my writing life, does suffer. Until this week, I’d been willing to let that go as an inevitable consequence of the season. It had kind of fallen into the mini-van category: a necessary evil that makes life for a mother of three exponentially more convenient.

The convenience of not writing, though, the luxury of all this quiet, has its consequences. And while I am not exactly sure what all of them are, the sum of their parts equals Not Good.

I read an article in the New York Times the other day about modern day Mommy Culture – how our life as mothers has somehow become so defining that it’s supplanted our core identities. Until my third child arrived, I felt I was able to hold most things in balance. Since then, I have (mostly unknowingly) been asking myself the following questions: “Do I want to be: A Mom Who Writes? A Mom Who Exercises? A Mom Who Volunteers?” Etc. etc. — As opposed to being a person who does all of those things and also happens to have a family.

The article in the Times came down pretty hard on our culture, and perhaps rightfully so, but I would also argue that all the Super Moms out there are knowing parties in the madness they’re perpetuating. These high achievers want to be the best, and it doesn’t matter if all we’re talking about are cake pops and class party logistics. They’re women who have had their dreams deferred (and sometimes derailed) by the process of parenting, and like everyone else, they’re desperately fighting the demons of insecurity.

I don’t have it together enough to be a Super Mom. I’m kind of a mess, really. But I feel for them, because I kind of know what they’re going through, and I wish for them that they could just take a deep breath and stop. Their kids don’t actually want them to be crazy.

My kids don’t want me to be crazy, either. Occasionally, I have been – and I am not using the term ‘crazy’ as a colloquialism when I write that. But as I have quietly been making my way through the past year or so, I’ve started to mix a little bit of my old self back in with the new. I started exercising after an embarrassingly long hiatus; I’m taking turns editing this awesome new lit mag; I felt the freedom to sit on a porch swing at the beach house to finish the last few chapters of The Goldfinch, while the dads manned the fort. Maybe writing again, more often, is next. We’ll see.

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A Submission Call … and Some Thoughts on “Calling”

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About five years ago, two of my favorite writers and I launched a fun online project named Proximity. The effort was theme-based and made interesting by each of our different locations – Madison, WI (Carrie Kilman), Atlanta, GA (moi), and a small village in South Africa (Maggie Messitt). For each “issue” we chose a place, usually physical, sometimes temporal, and we wrote a short essay about our experience of it, yielding a diverse trio of perspectives. The project lasted a year, at which point we each felt it was time to move on.

Now, Maggie, Carrie and I are excited to serve as editors of the “new” Proximity, a literary magazine in the same vein as the original. We’ve added Traci Macnamara, an old friend with a stellar writing voice and a concrete sense of place, to the editorial team, and we plan to launch the first issue in January, 2014. Its theme will be “Morning,” and submission guidelines can be found on our web site. Please check it out, “like” us everywhere we can be “liked,” and tell your friends!

For my part, I am having a difficult time transitioning from having full-time “mom/family thoughts” to “mom thoughts” slightly diluted by “writer thoughts.” Everyone still needs to be fed and the kitchen cleaned three times a day; there is still, on average, ninety minutes of laundry to be folded and put away at least a few times a week; and there are things to volunteer for at the kids’ schools, and cookies to be baked, and parental awesomeness to act on.

And yet I now have this separate, highly creative project that I want to contribute to in meaningful, productive ways.

How I can make that happen in the midst of an afternoon like I had yesterday is going to be a work in progress. First, the baby tripped and split his forehead open on the (brick) corner of our house. Once consoled and cleaned up, he then dumped the contents of his diaper on the pantry floor (only to be found by me later, while grabbing canned tomatoes). At about the same time as the head injury, my three year old was yelling at the top of her voice for a headband she could not find among the playroom’s detritus and my five year old was having a monumental, if not historic, meltdown about misplaced butterfly wings.

Did I mention that we were having another mom and her two kids over for dinner and that the dads were working late? Our guests showed up just in time for me to find my 18 month old’s “present” in the pantry.

All is well that ends well, and it mostly did, except that Elizabeth (3) bit Claire (5) so hard on the back while I was putting the baby to bed that I could still see each tooth’s individual imprint fifteen minutes later. And speaking of teeth, I also had to play tooth fairy, which I think is the world’s most ridiculous joke on parents who really, really want their kids to believe in magic for as long as possible. Trying to get a tooth from underneath a sleeping child’s head in the middle of the night, especially when she shares a room with a light sleeper, without blowing the tooth fairy’s cover, is very nearly impossible. (Mission: Accomplished.)

Life does not slow down for me – for anyone – long enough to take stock of where I am and where I’m going. There is no time when I am not doing something, or neglecting something that needs to be done purely for reasons of self-preservation. There is no mossy rock on which to sit on and dream, to organize and plan for the next project, be it familial or professional. I read the work of great essayists, poets and novelists, past and present, and wonder how they found the time and the head space to put thoughts and words together in such beautiful format.

And for a few minutes, I find myself fraught with jealousy and dismay.

Writing is, in essence (and at its best), an act of service to the greater world. I have always wanted to minister to others in some way through my writing – to serve them for the better, because that is what writers, and so many of my writing teachers, have done for me.

But right now, I am spending my life – all the resources my heart and my mind have to offer – on the cultivation of little people’s hearts and minds. It is a service I did not know I was equipped for, but I am. It is a service that I thought would feel like a burden, but it doesn’t.

Yesterday, as I was talking to my amazing sister-in-law on the phone, I brought up Proximity and mentioned how long I’d been out of the game and how crazy it feels to be snapped back into a place of wanting to play again, in the midst of the three kids and the busy, ambitious husband, and everything else.

And she said, in such a beautifully casual way, “Right now you are writing – you’re writing your children’s lives, and one day there will be more time for writing of your own.” I almost burst into tears at the thought of engraving words into the tiny hearts in my care. I had never thought of it that way, but now I will.

How the calling of motherhood dovetails with the calling of writing for the greater good, even if we’re talking about a fairly small audience, is something that I cannot begin to wrap my brain around, but I feel confident, in a way I am not usually confident, that it will.

Editing Proximity-as-literary-journal is the beginning of that journey, and I could not be more thrilled to be a part of it. To learn more: http://proximitymagazine.org/about/

Recap

This photo was taken by my good friend and fabulous photographer, Nicole Owens.

If my life were a movie, this is what the past five months would look like.

Cue the music:

Day One: Baby P arrives! We are thrilled and grateful. Big Sister #1 is proud, curious and in charge. Big Sister #2 is deeply irritated, confused and upset.

Day Three – Week 5: Towles’ body turns into an amazing, adrenaline powered machine. She goes to preschool to pick up the girls on the way home from hospital. She goes to Target with her four year old on the way home from picking up girls from preschool. She takes all three children to the grocery store and feels she has conquered the world. There is no task too large for her; she actually believes this with all her heart.

Week 5: Towles & husband plan to go out on first date since baby P’s arrival. A Friday night date (Saturdays are always better). Towles has not showered in a few days. It is very, very hot outside – too hot to go to the play ground, too hot to sit in the shade. Towles has realized that going to the pool with a four year old, a not yet two year old and a newborn is impossible. We have been inside for what seems like weeks. The confused & angry not-yet-two-year-old has drawn all over the couch with black marker. The baby needs milk/diaper/sleep/burping, etc. The four year old is bouncing off the wall. Ivy, the dog, has acquired a barking problem.

Towles is averaging about two hours of sleep per night.

When the babysitter arrives, she lets herself in and finds Towles weeping in the kitchen.

Husband arrives home from work, frazzled. Who replaced his WonderWoman wife & mother with this puddle on the floor? Entire house is electrified by his arrival. Saintly babysitter sends Towles upstairs to take a shower.

Towles cried all the way downtown to this fabulous restaurant. She does not remember eating, but thinks the food was probably good.

Week 5 to Week 12: Towles and Baby P begin to get more sleep most nights. Except, of course, during Week 7 when the husband went on an international business trip and the not-yet-two-year-old insisted on sleeping in a big girl bed in the middle of the night and protested in her crib so loudly and for so long that we were all awake at 4 am for the day – for three days in a row. Towles proved to herself then that she is actually of no danger at all to her children, because she has never in her life been so tired, angry or annoyed, and she managed not even to curse at her kids – yes, this actually deserves praise. She may have yelled, just a little.

Summer turns to fall – Baby P sleeps 12 hours straight on his three month birthday. (This was a gift from God, not an achievement of scientific method.) He smiles and laughs. The not-yet-two-year-old turns two. She begins to like her baby brother, if only a little, and kisses him on occasion. The four year old is still bouncing off the walls, but she is kind about it, anyway, and joyful, and Towles thinks again and again how much she is going to miss the noise and the princess dresses when the four year old goes to Kindergarten next year.

Towles (mostly) stops crying on the way to restaurants on dates. She has also stopped doing things that seem easy unless you have actually tried to do them with a four year old, a two year old and an infant, such as: going to the grocery store, going to the mall, going to a play ground, going on walks, going to Target, going out to lunch, and going to the children’s shoe store. These were lessons, hard-won. We go to pre-school; we come home. On occasion, we go to the library (not downtown!); when we HAVE to, we go to Target (They have awesome kid carts! They have Starbucks in house!). This is it – will be it – for the next year. Towles is OK with that.

Towles has had very little energy for anything other than Pinterest and watching reruns of The Dog Whisperer, and cooking nearly all dinners in the crockpot. She wants to be profound right here, but finds that words, for the first time ever, maybe, are inadequate.

On Writing and an Unkept House

Over the weekend, I was reading a little of Billy Collins’ poetry collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room. I love Billy Collins’ work, and not just because, as a former US poet laureate, he’s a high-profile poet. I love Collins’ writing because he finds meaning and humor in every day things and communicates those lessons by composing poetry that feels tangible and well-reasoned. His lines make you think, but not too hard. That’s a feat for a poet.

At any rate, I was reading this collection of Collins poetry on the way to the mountains last weekend and came across a poem entitled “Advice to Writers.” The first two stanzas read:

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
 
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

 

I had to wonder if Collins would offer writers with two children under the age of four the same advice, or if he might just say to make sure the diaper bin had been emptied, the breakfast dishes cleared, a path made free of toys, princess tiaras and the previous night’s pajamas.

Later in Collins’ “Advice to Writers,” he writes, “…you will behold in the light of dawn the immaculate alter of your desk, a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.” My only consolation upon reading this is that the man must be crazy; I have a desk, but it is far from being an immaculate altar – it’s currently covered in Claire’s (highly entertaining) artwork, four craft buckets, puppets, and the detritus of our every day lives. It seems my desk has become the sacrifice rather than the altar to which I bring my words for penance.

My house is a disaster. Since August it seems like we’ve barely been home, and when we have been here, I’ve hesitated to put away the unpacked bags, or even to completely unpack them, because another trip was on the horizon. Elizabeth is in that delightful phase where she treats emptying boxes and bags as her full time job, and Claire, my unkempt little princess, tries on several outfits each morning before settling on any one and refusing to let me brush her hair. I folded two massive loads of laundry yesterday while the girls were napping; I can’t bring myself to face the third, waiting for me in the dryer. On days when the girls are at school I often take myself off-location, but honestly, there’s no place like home for writing. I can focus here, even if it is messy, and I can write without feeling self-conscious or pressed for time.

In all seriousness, I get what Billy Collins is saying. I agree that an orderly life most often leads to orderly inspiration, that a mind clear of nagging chores does better work. But if I waited for my entire house to be clean, for my children to be perfectly presentable, dinner expertly cooked, and for all my motherly and volunteer duties to be wrapped up in a lovely little bow, I would Never. Ever. Sit down to write.

So, here I am, sitting on my rumpled couch, in front of my magazine/children’s book scattered coffee table, going after inspiration in whatever form I can find it. Sorry, Billy. I’m taking Annie Dillard’s advice, instead: “Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

 

 

Strong Willed

In August, Elizabeth started in the toddler room at Claire’s preschool. Her teachers were Claire’s teachers, ladies who are both loving and nurturing and have the keen expectation that the children in their class are on a journey towards self-sufficiency. The tots are encouraged but not coddled; they are taught in love. I could not be happier with our experience there.

On orientation night, Miss B asked me how Claire, now three and a half, was doing. Claire’s stubbornness had permeated that particular day, her fight to do what she wanted to do, regardless of my ideas for her, so incredibly strong that I was forced to ask myself whether or not I truly cared whether her hair was combed, her shoes matched her outfit or if she ate anything other than cheese and bread for the rest of her life. Nothing had been easy. I sighed and said, “She’s learning how to push all my buttons.” Miss B nodded and said, “I’m not surprised.” We both smiled.

Even in infancy, Claire was a force of boisterous energy, enthusiasm, and stubbornness. Her key phrase, from the time she could speak a phrase was, “I do it!” And yet, she has this contagious joy that makes her deeply strong will a little less maddening. And there are times when she is both compliant and accepting of the fact that things can’t always go her way.

But when Claire is of a mind to elbow her way through life, she does so with such insistence and determination that it takes everything I have not to find the nearest diaper and use it as my flag of surrender.

Which leaves me to wonder: How much of Claire’s will should I try to break? How much should I leave for the world to break? And how much should I celebrate?

I believe in raising strong girls. Girls who appreciate what others can do for them but believe deep in their heart of hearts that they can and will do for themselves just as well, if not better. I want them to stand up against bullies, to run hard and fast towards the things that they believe, to be individuals who live fearlessly from now through their adolescence and adulthood.

And by that, I don’t mean that I want them to be overly daring, to jump off the highest cliff because they’ll appear to be brave, but for them to be fearless when it comes to matters of the heart: to embrace themselves for who they are and what they look like, to uphold the truth, even when it’s scary, to pursue the best and highest purpose their lives hold for them.

It will take strong will for my children to live into these hopes I have for them. The world is unkind. Girls, especially, are unkind. When I talk to other young mothers of girls, I find we are all already worried about middle school and its meanness; my heart will break the day Claire combs her hair or dresses differently because she doesn’t want to be the butt of a joke, and then I’ll wish for these preschool days, when absolutely nothing mattered to her but her individuality.

I find that I am looking for light on the horizon to help me end this post, a way to conclude with certainty. But that is just not how motherhood is. I can no more assure Claire and Elizabeth that their futures will be a carbon copy of what they hope for than I can offer a blueprint, or even a cheerful metaphor, about parenting a lovably strong willed child. So I’m going to leave this one open-ended, saying only that I am grateful for the opportunity, and, as one who has lived with it, that tenacity is not the worst trait a kid could have.

The Power of NOW

No, I don’t mean the National Organization for Women. I mean “Now” as in “this present time.” I am learning all about living in the now these days. Having a baby does that. The meaning of this for me is two-fold:

These days, I can only do what I am doing right this second, which is to say that if I am feeding Claire I cannot also unload the dishwasher or make the bed or go running (though I can read The New Yorker and/or Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child). Having a baby sucks you in in this way; you are, for several stretches of the day, entirely engaged and indisposed, entirely at the mercy of the now.

Secondly, I’ve realized that living in the now means I’ve had to bid farewell to procrastination; if Claire is asleep or happily “playing” by herself, I’ve got to do whatever I want or need to do, and at double the speed. Procrastination used to be part of my daily routine. Now, if I allow myself that luxury, I’ll get absolutely nothing done.

At first, this drove me crazy. I wanted to multi-task the way I did in the old days; I wanted to get things out of the way. The general state of impatience and quickness that once characterized my days had turned into something much more deliberate and mundane. Before, I was always completing one task in the midst of thinking about the next, all so I could get through the things I knew I had to do in order to procrastinate for a good long time with my writing assignments. With a baby, one can only be patient, slow, and available.

Andrew has been worried about me slipping into the MomZone, a zone, that is, where my entire personality and thought life is poured into our child. As anxious as I was about the danger of losing myself prior to having Claire, I don’t feel threatened by it at all right now. Living in the Now, from moment to moment, forces me to prioritize well, to focus on those things that are most important (for myself or for Claire) and to be available – to friends, family members, and even my writing – in ways that I was too self-consumed and impatient to be before. Plus, I recognize that Claire’s absolute need for me won’t last forever, and, furthermore, that she is a great excuse for a myriad of social and professional faux pas.

For example, there are not enough Nows between now and the end of the summer to help me get all my thoughtful baby gift thank yous written; not enough Nows to serve ketchup in dining-room-table-worthy containers rather than the cold, half-used Heinz 57 bottle; not even enough Nows to put on matching shoes to go out to lunch with my husband – Just yesterday, I got home, kicked off my heels, and realized I’d gone out about town wearing one black sandal, and one brown one. So much for thinking I had it all together.

But I revel in the Nows I do have: stolen moments with my good friend Mac, the time between feedings when I can give Ivy some much-needed love, the presence of mind to pick up a freelance job (hip hip!) and complete it on time (hooray!). Most of all, I am grateful that some of my cherished Nows are not when Claire is sleeping, but when she is awake, because the power of Now truly rests in balancing two worlds well: mine, so full, exhausting and complex, and hers, as simple as the smile she shares with me.