A Stay-at-Home Mom’s Walk to Work

Recently I got dressed for a professional event for the first time in over six years. I thought about the tone of the occasion—a publisher’s presentation of its spring lineup of children’s books—and the image I wished to convey. Parental, but current and competent. Bookish, but not frumpy. I put on a bra with underwire, selected accent jewelry, and tucked two of my favorite black Uni-ball micro-point pens and a notepad into my sleek, but not flashy, handbag.

My husband dropped our oldest at school, a neighbor agreed to take the four-year-old in exchange for me watching hers later that afternoon, and I asked a babysitter to put our infant down for nap for the first time.

I double-checked the event’s start time, worried about making a stupid scheduling mistake as I had the previous weekend. We’d driven into a Sausalito parking lot for a meticulously planned birthday surprise for my husband—a $30 paddleboard yoga class—and sat snacking in the rental car killing time until it began. We emerged only to find that the group had left, the class having started when we first arrived.

Luckily, the publisher’s invite still said 10:00. I opened the front door and stepped out into the morning sunlight, thrilling with anticipation, almost giddy over the novelty of it all. Anxiety nipped at my heels: What if the baby won’t sleep? What if she wakes up, looks around, and her little face quivers and falls, the sitter unable to quiet her cries of abandonment? I quickly closed and locked the door, determined to leave my disquiet at home.

Ten minutes later, I stepped onto MUNI—San Francisco’s subway-like conveyance running from the Castro to the Financial District—in a crowd of men wearing crisp collared shirts and women in dark skirts tailored like mine.

“Yup, all of us working people headed off to work,” I thought, experiencing an odd degree of camaraderie given that no one made eye contact, each of them sporting either earbuds or an electronics-laden hand.

I disembarked at my intended stop, close to the intersection of Second and Market, marveling at the ease of such a procedure without three children in tow. A quick cross-check of my calendar and maps apps revealed that the publisher’s office was located at the other end of Second Street, twenty minutes away from my current location but just feet from where my train would have stopped had I stayed on. Oops. Luckily I’d built in extra time and wore running shoes, heels stowed in my bag, just as I used to before the kids were born.

Walking down the busy street at a nice clip reminded me of my daily pedestrian commute from Boston’s Beacon Hill to the Prudential Center in Back Bay. The fresh air and physical activity had brought a measure of sanity to my crazed days studying for two bar exams while trying to keep partners and clients happy and also plan a wedding. Now I felt that same singular purposefulness, one person striding from point A to point B for activity C. Blissfully efficient. I enjoyed the walk so much that I felt hesitant to go in when I arrived at 9:55.

I took a moment to slow my breathing, wipe my brow, and swap into my pumps. Then I checked my calendar one last time to confirm the start time. That’s when I finally noticed the date. The event would take place weeks later. On the Tuesday three days after my son’s birthday. Not the Tuesday three days after my husband’s birthday, where my brain had placed it.

I had read the email eight times. This is what it means to be so sleep-deprived that you lack the ability to discern just how dysfunctional you are.

As the information sunk in, emotion quickly built, exerting pressure like an airplane taking off. Complete calm, and then faster faster faster and up up up, with a g-force pull to the gut, heart, and head. Disbelief. Horror. Panic. Dismay. Self-reproach. Yet less than a minute later, the craft pulled level.

An odd tranquility settled in, leaving me undisturbed by the wasted money and favors. I exhaled, shrugged to no one in particular, and walked to the nearby train station, not bothering to change shoes again. The click, click, click of my heels sang out against the concrete, announcing my presence.

This time, headed in the outbound direction, I rode with my usual companions. Students. Kids. All the adults were women, the middle-aged ones featuring contradictory eyes: the skin underneath purplish red and sagging, the skin to the sides tight and colorless.

I was at home again in their company. A fellowship deeper than similar outfits and destination. But then again, I wasn’t, not exactly. My own red eyes rimmed in eyeliner looked down upon the carefully feminine folds of my skirt.

A stay-at-home mom stepping into the working world again. Both alive with possibility and dead tired. One foot in sneakers, the other in heels.

Originally published on Coffee + Crumbs


 

Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mom of three and freelance writer. Born in St. Louis and raised in the Bay Area, she’s a serial monogamist of urban living who resided in Berkeley, New York, D.C., Boston, and Seattle before committing to San Francisco. Her work has been published online by the Washington Post, Salon, the Huffington Post, and Scary Mommy, among others. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.

Why Parents Can’t Complain: It’s Not Torture, Is It?

And I saw Sisyphus too, bound to his own torture, grappling his monstrous boulder with both arms working, heaving, hands struggling, legs driving, he kept on thrusting the rock uphill toward the brink, but just as it teetered, set to topple over—time and again the immense weight of the thing would wheel it back and the ruthless boulder would bound and tumble down to the plain again—so once again he would heave, would struggle to thrust it up, sweat drenching his body, dust swirling above his head.

– Homer, The Odyssey

“How’s it going?” we are asked with regularity. For decades I replied with “fine” or “good,” regardless of my reality. After my daughter’s birth, these pat answers seemed not just inaccurate, but emotionally fraudulent. Yet you can’t unload on a stranger:

My baby writhes in pain so many hours a day, that I go running just because the wind in my ears dulls her cries. But we’re so blessed that there are treatments for her and that we live in a first-world country with the means to access first-rate care. I’m completely fraught though. Miserable, but also grateful . . . thanks for asking!

So I found a socially acceptable answer that felt right: “I can’t complain.”

As a former professional who stays home by choice, I can’t complain. But I often want to. Because parenting can seem an awful lot like torture.

“Mahh,” six years and two kids later, a different baby screams, “mahh, mahh, mahh.” She’s trying to elicit additional grapes when there are no “mahh,” since the groceries have—yet again—gone faster than anticipated. As she continues to blare like a car alarm, “mahh, mahh, mahh,” my six-year-old starts in on me. I stand on aching feet, slicing chicken-apple sausage into a frying pan, stirring brown rice pasta, and turning brussels sprouts, as she screams:

It’s not fair! None of the other kids have to do it! Why did you make me go to the doctor? Why?! You’re mean. You’re the worst mommy ever. If you didn’t make me go, I wouldn’t have to take this medicine. And I hate it. I hate it, hate it, hate it. And none of the other kids have to do it!

Her hysterical rant continues to cycle through these accusations, she and the baby engaging in decibel one-upmanship. All the while, my three-year-old bounds about the room, running laps through his homemade obstacle course of overturned chairs.

At about minute four, my eyes moisten. I take none of the criticism to heart, but the tears roll down into the skillet anyway, over-salting the sausage, and I wish that I could be somewhere far, far away.

Losing an hour of sleep. Having to wait to use the bathroom. A tinge of hunger. A little noise. Minor physical discomfort. A lack of personal space. A bit of physical contact. Someone moving around the space you’re in. Being interrupted mid-sentence. These are common experiences for parents.

Together, they also happen to be some of the most effective techniques (so long as you don’t mind false confessions) discussed in the classic police manual Criminal Interrogation and Confessions and used in “enhanced” fashion in places like Guantanamo.

Interrogators can also increase a suspect’s stress level and make it harder for them to detach, say the head games experts, by switching back and forth between physical gestures of camaraderie and censure, or, bringing another person into the room.

Sounds a lot like adding a sibling to the mix and braving toddler mood swings from “Mommy, I love you more than all the catfish under all the seas” to “there is a mean lady and it is YOU, bad Mama.”

Wait, it can’t be that bad, right?

No, especially considering tales of refugees surviving impossible losses of life, liberty, and dignity, the work of childrearing is most definitely not torture.

But it can be torturous. In a way that cannot be understood by someone who hasn’t unloaded the dishwasher so she can reload it, unpacked the lunch boxes so she can repack them, emptied the trash cans so she can refill them. All while triaging the fifteen other things that need doing and running an emotional gauntlet. Every day. For years.

Sisyphus’s personal corner of hell often stands as a symbol for tedious, menial labor. I don’t see how. His muscles strain; he uses all his faculties moving that rock up the mountain. No one part is terribly impressive: a weight, of unwieldy shape, a steep incline, feet slipping on gravel, dust in the air. Yet all together, he’s wrestling a boulder up an impossible slope.

Even this though, wouldn’t be enough to make us remember his job hundreds of years after its first description. It’s being destined to repeat the feat again and again for all of eternity that makes his work epic. His task is hard, and rendered exponentially more intense by being endless.

So I can’t complain as I stand in front of a sink once again full of dishes, brimming over with frustration, agitation, and even fear, desperate to escape the pressure cooker, to just get the hell out of there.

I know I can’t complain, but I’ve got psychologically-sound, cumulative reasons for wanting to.

Dear ESPN, Thank you for the sexy redhead. Love, Mom

My son is a redhead, or as we call it in our house, an orangehead. Strands the color of sun-warmed sand peek out from between burnished copper locks. Looking at it, letting it slowly run between my fingers, is ensorcelling, like staring into a tiger’s eye.

Dalton

Just after he was born, a college pal with hair of a similar hue looked down sadly and said, “He’s got the curse.” My husband and I stood there, shocked and incredulous; we had fantasized about a gaggle of kids with russet curls. But our friend told us his hair made childhood miserable. We shrugged it off, convinced our buddy must have had other issues.

Now we get it.

Strangers comment every time our little boy goes out in public without a hat. Usually multiple someones say multiple things, the most popular of which are:

  • “Wow! Look at that hair.”
  • “Boy, you’re gonna be trouble.”
  • “You are red! So red. Hey there, Red.”
  • “You’re a fiery little guy, aren’t you? I bet you get mad.”
  • “A ginger!”
  • “That hair is too much. It is just too much.”
  • “Hey, carrot top! What’d you do, eat a whole bag of carrots?”
  • “Redheads dance with the devil.”

I kid you not. All of these things have been said to my four-year-old by adults with not a wisp of self-awareness. The words seem to just bubble out of them with no thought for his little feelings, for the confusion and dismay the statements could cause.

People mean well. They’re as entranced by his hair as I am. I can see the positivity, the wonder and delight, in their faces. But he can’t. Sometimes they say the awful ones that make him think he and his hair are naughty, weird, and “too much.” Most often though, he hears a literal exclamation without connotation: “Your hair is so red.” It doesn’t sound bad any one time, but repeated attention without praise also makes him hang that much-heralded head.

Thanks to our friend’s warning, Mama Bear got proactive early. After he turned two, I started to follow up.

“A ginger!” they say, cruising right on by.

Stopping and turning, I answer, “Yes, isn’t it just beautiful hair?”

“You’re trouble, buddy,” they chuckle.

“No, you must have him confused with someone else,” I respond, “He’s a kind, helpful boy.”

They almost all realize the error and get on board immediately: “Oh yes, such lovely hair.” But it doesn’t feel like enough.

There are extraordinarily few positive portrayals of red hair for boys. Redheaded girls deal with their share of hurtful stereotypes (no one wants to be called “fire crotch” and questioned about the coordination of her carpets and drapes), but many positive images and associations soften the blow. Not so for boys.

The mean kid in picture books often has hair as flaming as his nasty taunts. Even Violet the Pilot, a favorite for its feminist role-shattering, commits this sin. Advertisements of grown men sprawled on beaches, the sexy ones for underwear and perfume, almost never feature redheads. When they do appear in the media, redheads are often portrayed as bumbling and clownish. Since my son, thankfully, rarely sees tabloids, Prince Harry’s good-looking, happy mug doesn’t help any.

I found myself wondering if we could do anything to ward off the curse.

Then ESPN brought some serious game. The cover of the magazine’s latest issue features Andy Dalton looking fierce, but not mean. Focused, but not quarrelsome. Smirking, but not goofy. Intense. Sexy. There’s nothing remarkable about the look as far as cover boys go. It’s your standard smoldering gaze with a hint of mischievousness. Masculine dominance with a softening kindness. The kind of thing that makes men jealous and women breathless.

The phenomenal part is that his red hair is featured in all its glory.

As soon as it arrived, I brought the magazine into the kitchen, and—knowing the value of what parenting expert Harvey Karp calls a “side-door” lesson—put it down in front of a friend of mine seated just to the side of my son. “Look at this guy!” I said to her, “Lots of people think he is very cool. And handsome.” He leaned over and looked, his interest evident but unspoken.

For the next week, I left the magazine lying around on various surfaces but said nothing more. Then, eight days after it first appeared in our house, my four-year-old brought Andy Dalton’s picture over to the kitchen counter. “Mommy,” he asked, as I feigned interest in continuing to load the dishwasher, “Do you think this man’s hair is handsome?”

“Yes, buddy, I do. I definitely do.”

He turned away, and I almost missed his smile. An outpouring of relief, self-confidence, and pure joy.

Thank you, ESPN, thank you so much.

Do My Kids Get the Affection I Used To Show My Husband?

Originally published by the Washington Post’s “On Parenting” 

———–

I would have been able to respond intelligently, possibly even cleverly, to my mentor’s remarks if it hadn’t been for a hand, first lightly touching my lower back and then slowly creeping up my spine to rest, warm and firm, at the base of my neck. Darn it. I knew I shouldn’t have brought a date.

When we first got together, my husband and I found professional events challenging. Being in the same room without touching felt almost painful, barely possible. As newlyweds, we judged couples with king beds; if you don’t want to come into contact, what’s the point of sleeping together? And throughout my first pregnancy we spent hours every day curled up: reading while snuggling, working while cuddling, even eating with our bodies intertwined in some way or another.

Our desire for physical affection seemed as endless as our brunch mimosas.

That was then. Now, six years and three kids after we first caved on the mattress issue, we’re lucky to sneak in a quick peck when he departs for work in the morning and a hug upon his return late each night. We still make each other giggle every day, and we squeeze moments of marital bliss in there with enough frequency to leave us both satisfied (if you catch my euphemism); but there has been a precipitous decline in physical contact.

Some of it is logistical: with my husband minding the small humans from six to eight each morning so that I can go back to sleep (as recompense for me handling all the infant wake-ups, wet beds, and nightmares) and then working until nine or ten each night, we don’t spend much time in the same room.

But there’s more to it than that.

Fatigue is definitely at play, both of the “I’m too tired to stretch out my arm toward you” variety and the sort that’s more like “if one more person climbs, pulls, or rides on my body tonight I will emotionally implode.” As a stay-at-home mom I spend all day in close proximity to people who know the concept of physical space the way I know quantum mechanics, which is to say they have not the slightest clue what it is. Even without the contact, constant verbal and emotional interaction means I’m left needing head space in the evening, and somehow physical space is a prerequisite for that.

My fear is that there’s also a satiation issue. Like bear cubs trying to get honey from a jar, my kids bumblingly bat my body around. But they also offer me hugs and kisses. Each day I receive uncomplicated, totally adoring physical affection from three people, one of whom recently shouted, “There’s a horrible, mean lady. And it’s YOU, bad Mama.” But he concluded the tirade—still hysterically screaming each word—with “I need a snuggle, and I want you to come to college with me and sleep in my bed every night!” Then he threw himself into my arms.

In other words, I get a lot of calming, affirming physical touch.

And it’s now my youngest—with her impossibly pliable, downy neck folds—who receives my eye-closing, deep-breathing, soul-unfurling embrace.

So maybe I’m not just too busy to brunch and too hungover to fully partake when I do. Maybe I grabbed mimosas with someone else beforehand. Perhaps the pit I once believed was bottomless is filled up with love from my kids, leaving less need or desire for my husband’s touch.

As awful as that sounds, the adaptation makes sense; it’s even optimal. Lord knows, the new independent and low-maintenance me suits my exhausted and more introverted husband just fine.

But it scares me. I assume a time will come when co-sleeping in an extra-long twin no longer seems attractive to my son. When our kids flee the nest, will our relationship have enough elasticity to bring us back together physically—or will we be so used to the necessity of our separateness that we never reconnect in incidental, nonessential ways?

I can’t say for sure. But the trepidation lessens when his hand randomly lifts and clasps mine across the dining room table. The worry subsides when he awakes on my side of the bed, having subconsciously gravitated toward me after a rough day at work. It all but disappears when I catch him smelling the top of my head on a random Tuesday morning.

We may never again be the couple who coordinated brushing our teeth so that we could hold hands while completing the chore. But these little physical gestures, seconds stolen back from the all-consuming whirlpool that is parenting young kids, give me confidence. They give me faith that soon enough it will once more be his arms into which I retreat for my eye-closing, deep-breathing, soul-unfurling embrace.

Even My Fantasies Are Tired and Crazy

The oldest daughter is six. The youngest is one, and not the type to waste a perfectly good night sleeping. If a mother had two additional pregnancies between these girls producing a miscarriage and a four-year-old boy, how many years has it been since she felt well-rested?

The answer is seven. Seven freaking years. I’ve been so sleep-deprived for so long that even my fantasies are tired and crazy.

When a combination of drowsiness and alcohol unleashes my subconscious, I picture myself lying in a hospital bed, tubes and machines everywhere—though none touching my serene, gorgeously-proportioned body. “You didn’t, by chance, snap at her, did you sir?” the doctor asks my despondent husband. “Unfortunately this type of trauma is caused by a lack of appreciation for housework, compounded by being blamed for the unruliness children,” he continues, “only a regimen of massage and expensive cheese will save her now.”

My beloved nods eagerly: “Yes, doctor, yes. What else can I do?”

“For the best chance of recovery, you must ensure she sees the children only when they’ve been cleaned, fed, and disciplined by someone else. Keep it to groggy, cuddly times, like during pediatric illness. Though it may increase the risk of recurrence, it also is permissible for her to fraternize with them during high-gratitude events like Christmas and the Ice Capades.”

In another daydream, I stand in the kitchen after having picked the big two up from school. I reach for the Flintstones vitamins and vitamin D chewies, both Costco-sized bottles. Absentmindedly, my hand extends into the breadbox where I keep contraband: chocolate, cookies, vitamins—things kids are dying to access but prove dangerous if unfettered. I pull out a bottle, and unscrew the childproof top. I give each child one, then sneak another for myself; after all these years, I still prefer the purple chalky Barney to the orange Wilma or red Fred.

But wait! My mouth registers squishy gelcap, not hard and gritty. Oh dear. It seems I mistook my stark white bottle of Unisom sleeping pills, about the size of my big toe that time it got stung by a bee, with the massive colorful vitamin containers.

“Mommy,” my six-year-old sleepily asks, “can we skip dinner tonight? I want to go put on my jammies.”

“Yeah. I’m tired, Mama,” her brother adds.

They climb out of their chairs, link arms like the adoring siblings in some retro musical like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and sing themselves a sweet lullaby as they disappear down the hall.

“Don’t you want a bath?” I call after them.

“No, Mommy, we just want to brush our teeth and use the bathroom one more time.”

“Are you sure you don’t need a few more stories?”

“No, we’ll read ourselves a short board book. That’s enough. We’re going to get in bed now, Mommy.”

“I can double-check the locks on the front door?”

“No, it’s totally safe in here. Goodnight. We love you, Mommy.”

“How about a glass of water?”

“Goodnight, Mommy.”

“One last snuggle? I could sit in your room for a while? Leave your door open a crack?”

“NO, Mommy. We’ll see you in the morning. GOODNIGHT.”

Of course I’ve been nursing the baby all this time, and the sleeping pill’s magic has gently floated through the blood-milk barrier to leave her eyelids closed, her angelic little mouth barely moving as if practicing future kisses.

The Unisom having robbed me of my will to fight the inevitable (and call poison control, apparently) I lay the little bug down in her crib. Yawning and stretching, I survey the house. No dinner to put away. No dishes to do. No floor to sweep. No bath towels to hang up. No books to reshelve.

After a solo trip to the bathroom, I slip into my softest pajamas that have plausible deniability in the “I still try” department: a stretchy top and bottom discreetly stamped “Betsy Johnson” and covered in black and fuchsia stripes. Feeling comfortable and looking as if I’ve escaped from sexy jail, I lift up my duvet and climb in. Cuddled up to the pregnancy pillow with which I still can’t bear to part despite my IUD, I peacefully drift off.

Approximately 4.32 minutes later, reality descends in the form of a wet, heavy-breathing four-year-old standing beside my bed, silently watching me, and the cries of the baby he awoke while departing from their bedroom. “I can’t find my binky, and I peed,” he says. Then the voice of my oldest rings out. “AND I’M NOT EVEN ASLEEP YET, BECAUSE IT SHOULD BE TOMORROW ALREADY AND I’M NOT TIRED AND I WANT TO READ.”

Goodnight, Mommy? More like, good luck.

But sweet dreams? Now that I can make happen.

#rarelybymyselfie

Usually I think long and hard about a new project, post, or submission. And then sometimes I mutter, “What the hell,” and just go for it. Today I launched a Twitter campaign for parents (and potentially twins, folks in nursing homes, prison inmates, and college students): #rarelybymyselfie. Behold the pictorial glory of my cup runnething over.

rarelybymyselfie1493531_10153047384591551_4218323970645057708_o (1)IMG_3193IMG_3617IMG_3204

Dear Other Parents, Here’s the Audio for the Pics I Post on Facebook

Hi! Remember me? Of course you do. I’m the friend who regularly posts idyllic pictures of my kids playing fantastically imaginative games and effortlessly building fine motor skills in my peaceful home. It’s not what it looks like. I mean, it is, but it isn’t.

Visual: That picture of us making peanut butter oat balls (well, sunbutter oat balls, I’m not a monster) with three little ones’ rapt attention as they learned units of measurement, volume, and other basics of culinary chemistry while concocting a healthy treat.

2015-09-16-1442428315-2938988-IMG_3166

Audio:

Vivi: Why don’t you have enough honey? Didn’t Dad tell you we were out of honey, like, last week?

Stuart: I don’t like flax. What is flax?

Tyler: I’m all done.

Me: I forgot the honey. Here, taste the flax. But we haven’t started yet.

Visual: The one of my two kiddos happily coloring in letters on a banner, made from the unbleached butcher paper Amazon uses as package filling, and reading “Vivienne’s Plants and Animals Sixth Birthday Party” for, well, you guessed it.

2015-09-16-1442428716-3809369-11705438_10153055789936551_3256896031287678962_o

Audio:

Stuart (after about three strokes of “skibble”): I’m done.

Vivi (after coloring in 2 of the 44 characters): I’m done.

Me: But you said you wanted a banner. You insisted that every great party has a banner. I just spent ten minutes tracing all these letters for you.

Vivi: Well, I’m done.

Me: The party is tomorrow.

Vivi: I know. I’m just done.

Seven hours pass

Me: Hi honey, how was your day?

Ian: Good. Ish. What are you doing?

Me: Every great party has a banner.

Ian: O-kay, let me help.

An hour later, at 10:45 p.m.

Me: Let’s just quit. The markers are dying. My hand hurts. I hate this fucking banner.

Ian: No way, I’ve only got “arty” left.

Me: What?! How is that possible? I’ve got all of “animals.”

Ian: It’s all in the wrist, babe. Here, let me show you.

Visual: The one where my kids decided to mummify me, wrapping me up in their dad’s undershirts and using magnatiles as jewels for my tomb, because we’d been reading all about ancient Egypt together.

2015-09-16-1442428439-5047455-IMG_3009

Audio:

Vivi: Stuart, stop! Stop it. I mean it, stop. I want to wrap up Mommy. If you put one more shirt on her, I’m going to hit you. Stuart, I’m going to hit you and take away everything you love.

Stuart: No, if you hit me, Mommy will throw away all your toys.

Vivi: Mommy, Stuart won’t let me do it. Stuart, let me do it. Stuart, let me. Mommy, he won’t. Stuart, let me do it.

Me (garbled as my head is inside my cardboard box tomb and the baby is basically jumping up and down on my bladder): Vivi, why don’t you just grab another one from the pile and do it instead of arguing about doing it?

Vivi: Fine. Stuart, pass me one from the pile. Stuart, pass me one. Stuart, pass it. I’m going to hit you if you don’t pass me one, Stuart.

So don’t stress about my apparently perfect parenting and cherubic children. Sometimes their faces are illuminated by joy and enlightenment; other days they’re smiling because that’s the look of glee they get when bitching and moaning. In parenting as in all else, looks can be deceiving.