Sunday, December 17, 2006

Dirty Laundry

At my last book group people were talking about how staying informed can be a problem these days, since we have so little time to read and listening to NPR in the car anymore is a nightmare.

"The news is just...inappropriate," said one friend. I snorted.

"Jonah doesn't pay attention to what's on the radio. My biggest problem is he doesn't shut up for one second. I can't hear a thing."

A comment like this doesn't go unmarked by the gods of parenthood, who listen attentively for such phrases as "My child sleeps through the night!" and "I think he's almost potty trained!" Upon which, they laugh heartily and throw fireballs down on our heads.

Anyway, the other day I was innocently driving somewhere with my 4-year-old, I turned on NPR. Immediately came a report about the latest ruling in the Duke rape case.

"The judge ruled today that the victim was not raped, but she was penetrated with a male sex organ."

My hand flew to the radio knob. "Jesus," I whispered. "Jonah, want to sing "Jingle Bells"? I asked brightly. Not being much of a singer, he didn't answer. I waited for a question about male sex organs. He said nothing. A few minutes later, I turned the radio on again.

A reporter discussed whether Dick Cheney would testify in the Valerie Plame case, the one in which she was outed as a CIA agent, allegedly because her husband criticized the Bush administration for lying about weapons of mass destruction.

"What's a mass destruction?" Jonah piped up from the back seat. OK, I thought, this is easy.

"It's a big bomb," I said.

Now, he doesn't know from bombs. I felt pretty sure his mind would be sort of boggled and he'd move on to talking about whether the draw bridge was going to go up as we crossed the University Bridge.

"A bomb like a mole bomb? The kind that kills moles?"

This summer, my dad had taken Jonah on a mole patrol through his garden. I found out later this involved a lengthy catalogue of ways to kill moles. This made me wrinkle my nose, but since Jonah didn't seem disturbed I forgot about it.

But real bombs? I couldn't possibly explain to him what a bomb really is; it's too terrible. Or biological weapons? Unthinkable.

"Yes," I said. "Like that."

As we were parking the car, along came the story about fifty nurses in Bulgaria (Romania?) who injected infants in their care with the HIV virus.

"Oh my God!" I exclaimed, throwing myself on the radio knob.

"What? Why did you say oh my god?"

"There were- there were - uh, some bad nurses," I blubbered, getting out of the car.

"Like at Dr. Render's office?" he asked.

"Yes. I mean no! That nurse is a good nurse."

"What is a bad nurse?"

"Let's go in here and get a big cinnamon roll!"

"I like that!"


The Rules

This morning I asked Matt for an immediate half hour of time off to write. I had just finished my breakfast. He was just starting his. Audrey bounced around demanding bits of his smoked salmon and bagel, simultaneously elbowing her brother in the ribs as she muscled her way in between dining chairs to be closer to Daddy's food. I regretted sticking Matt with both kids before he'd finished his coffee. But I do not want today to be like yesterday. I must approach today with whatever dregs of desire for holistic family wellness I can scrape together. So here I am.

I am trying some of the tricks I've learned over the past year and forgotten the less I "needed" them. As I lay in bed this morning trying to ignore Audrey climbing all over me, I made a small intention to get out of bed without complaining. To make the dear child her bowl of Organic Toasted Oats with tolerance if not blissful maternal love. And then see what happened.

I placed a warm sweater over her thin shoulders and offered socks. She shook her head. Together, we descended the stairs. I looked around. I saw at least five things to put away, throw away, organize, rearrange. Remembering a rule I made for myself a year ago, No chores before coffee, I made a conscious decision to walk past the wadded tissue paper, empty cardboard boxes, and pine needles on the floor. Audrey toddled right up to the Christmas tree and swiftly beheaded a toy soldier. Then she began her usual demanding-customer routine: "I want cereal. I want some milk. Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, I want my vitamin. I want some breakfast." Now, when I'm grumpy, I ignore her for awhile while making my coffee, then snap at her because her begging has reached a fever pitch, then dutifully serve her the motherfucking whatever she wants while complaining about the lousy tips around here. But let's start today differently.

I kept my voice low. I responded to my little urchin calmly, looking at her in the eyes. (Make eye contact is another of my almost-forgotten rules for sanity.) I set her up with food immediately in order to distract her from vandalizing the Christmas tree. She was occupied. I was relaxed.

I scanned the front page of the newspaper. This is against one of my rules, Ignore the news until lunchtime, but I did it anyway because Western Washington is in a state of crisis and I wanted to know the latest news. (Seven dead, 50 hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning, homes split in half by fallen trees.) And then I just needed to write for awhile.

Ask for what you need.

Can I make a better day today? Can I enjoy the children today? Can I let them off the hook as well as myself?

Can I give my husband three uninterrupted hours in front of the Patriots game?

Well, one thing at a time.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Goin' on a Bear Hunt

Goin' on a bear hunt (clap, clap, clap, clap)
I'm not afraid (clap, clap, clap, clap)
Comin' to a wheat field (clap, clap, clap, clap)
Can't go around it (clap, clap, clap, clap)
Gotta go through it (clap, clap, clap, clap)
Swish swish swish swish swish swish

Having reached the other side of the River Styx, at least for now, it is easy to say that what one goes through as a new mother is temporary but unavoidable. I knew this in the thick of things, too - but I railed against the unfairness of it. There was simply no way around the mental instability, broken sleep, physical exhaustion, and emotional desert of caring for two tiny children. It made me weak and classically female in a way I couldn't accept. I wanted to blame someone for what was causing me to suffer. Capitalism! The Patriarchy! My mother! There had to be a way out. But it was - and is - just what it is. Motherhood. On the side of Life, I can say this without bitterness. On the side of Death, I said it with a wail: "My children are killing me!"

One way to not let my children kill me was to pursue life outside the family. This required some sacrifice from them (if spending time away from their screaming, withdrawn mother was really a sacrifice). One evening a week, I led a suport group for new parents. Now, before you laugh at this image of the blind leading the the blind, consider this: the helping professions are lousy with depressives and addicts. Everyone knows the joke that not a few crazy people train as psychotherapists, recovered cokeheads become addiction counselors, and the ranks of teachers are packed with the suffering and the wounded. I fit right in. Being fresh off the battlefield, I wanted these sleep-deprived, paralyzed-by-worry parents to know that I understood them. That they were not alone. That somehow I could help them avoid the crazy-making mental ruts I had gotten into as a new parent.

They seemd to resent my presumption. I had forgotten that new parents tend to think their experience is unique. I had forgotten the grand fantasies they/we have that we will triumph where others have failed. That with our education, coolness, professional life, insight, whatever, we will Do This Right. And I had forgotten that I didn't get out of my rut because someone gave me the right advice.

I noticed, after a few more meetings, that when I released my agenda, shut up, and allowed them to share their failings and misgivings with each other (hesitantly, at first: no one wants to be outed as a substandard parent), they softened and began to lean on one another. I saw that emotional quagmire is part of many parents' experience, and there just ain't no way around it. Squish squish squish squish.

Now I'm leading a second group. These mothers are showing me the same thing: Okay, no one is ever going to solve this basic problem of the impossibility of being a mother. Not the right book, not the right exercise regimen, not even the most stellar partner. So how are we going to have reasonable lives? One of the moms said, "You have to do what makes you least crazy." How did she get so smart so fast?

Last night, my friend Vicki, who has a 4-year-old and a newborn, listened to me yak about my latest career idea, and then sighed. "I look forward to being in that position again to even think about those things," she said. I was blown away by her wisdom and the gentleness with which she treated herself in that comment. I didn't have that kind of intelligence or peace when I was still nursing my second child. I was angry as hell and constantly battering myself for not having a job (even though I didn't really want one).

"There's time in the universe for everything I want to do," she continued, sipping a nonalcoholic, lactose-free beverage in the bar at Atlas Foods. "If I can't do something now, I just put it back out there and have faith that I'll come back to it."

Amen, Sister.

But I'll have a champagne cocktail with that thought.