Today’s daily digit: 6
This morning: Cloudy, vomit, lots of tears, one forgotten lunch.
Tonight: Kidless, evening class until 8:30, chance of wine — 90%
Tomorrow: Sunny, chance of toddler rejecting pants — near 100%
This morning started off well: I woke up before either of the kids, prepped breakfast, and brewed a pot a coffee before waking the kids. Found my seven-year-old daughter, Zora, lying face-down on the bed with tears welling up in her brown eyes. After twenty questions, I learned she feels nervous about a standardized test she has to take tomorrow. Successfully explained “assessment” vs. “judgement” (“You can’t be kicked out of second grade for not doing well”) to her and convinced her to get dressed and go downstairs.
Grabbed the two-year-old from his crib along with his clothes, brought him downstairs and plunked him next to his sister, who is staring at her cereal but not eating it. Two-year-old demands chocolate milk, not vanilla. Chewing ensues.
Next: Attempt to get toddler dressed, which is a lot like trying to catch pig and put clothes on it.
Get the pants on. Toddler starts coughing, then choking, then puking, then crying. Take toddler’s pants off. Toddler refuses to put on clean pants (“I no LIKE these”), so I try a pair pants, which he also rejects. I pin him down with my leg and yank the pants up and then convince him to wear a Thomas the Tank Engine shirt. Vomit pants go in the washing machine.
Walk out the door with both kids and see the car seat sitting on the front steps. We had taken it out so we could pick up my mother-in-law and her friend from the airport. Spend the next seven minutes cursing and installing the carseat in my car using its medieval system of nylon belts and metal buckles. Toss the kids into the car and strap them down and whoosh off to school. Get stuck behind a garbage truck and three school buses.
Zora’s Morning Stats
School arrival time: 7:56
If you could wake up tomorrow and be fluent in any language you don’t currently speak, which would it be? Why? What’s the first thing you do with your new linguistic skills?
“[Your daughter] is speaking at slightly below grade-level in Spanish,” my daughter’s first grade teacher wrote in the Notes section of her report card. “She is sensitive and worried about making mistakes. Please let her know that making mistakes is an opportunity to learn.”
The same advice applies to me. I know some Spanish — mostly nouns and some present tense verbs — and I can have a decent conversation with a two-year-old, but I’m pretty sure that my Spanish sounds like Tarzan chatting up Jane.
I even feel shy about speaking Spanish with my El Salvadorean nanny, who I know wouldn’t make fun of me. This morning, I thought, I’ll try. And just as I was about to say, “Es muy frio! I leapt to the comfort of English.
Why? I’m frustrated by that in-the-head translation time, the time it takes for me to think my thought in English and then look up the Spanish translation with a search engine that is light years slower than Google. I also dislike not being able to fully express myself, and, yes, dislike feeling stupid. Spanish immersion schools didn’t exist when I was growing up in Connecticut in the 80s. Instead, schools introduced us a foreign language (Spanish or French) in 7th grade, when our brains aren’t nearly so pliable. I took Spanish until freshman year of college, seven years, and then I tossed that lengua aside. There was no one to practice with in Lynchburg, Va.
Fast forward nearly 20 years later to my life now in the Washington, D.C., metro area where the Hispanic population hovers between 14 and 15 percent. I think about how I felt the first time I left the country and lived for a summer in Italy. I felt like a different person the first few weeks there: quiet and frustrated that I couldn’t express and share my thoughts. I remember thinking, “these people have no idea who I am!” Like an iceberg, they were only seeing a small portion of who I really was.
That experience of being “the other” helps me empathize with the native Spanish speakers in my life. Do they feel like shadows in our culture, seen and not heard? If I could wake up tomorrow morning and speak Spanish, I would really get to know my nanny who speaks fairly decent English, but is much more expressive and comfortable in Spanish. I could strike up a conversation with the woman who waters the plants in my office, travel to Central or South America, or Spain, and experience the food, culture, and people in a more intimate way. And, I could help my daughter overcome her reluctance to speak Spanish. My husband and I didn’t chose to send our daughter to a Spanish-Immersion School to “get ahead;” rather, we chose to send her to gain compassion and understanding of cultures and people different than our own.
My son is going through the possessive, small tyrant stage. If my daughter sits on my lap, he races over, clings to my knees, and wails, “MY Mommy!” If I try to put him in the stroller so we can walk from the store to the car in less than an hour, he shrieks, “I walk!” pulls the lead noodle move, and slithers from my arms. If I am reading the Sunday New York Times, he, like a cat, will insert himself between my eyes and the page, laying across the newspaper, flipping over on top of the crumpled mess that is the Style section, and flashing a wide, toothy grin.
Apparently, my husband is going through the same stage. Once I finally have a moment to tuck my legs under me and crack open whatever book I’m reading, he pokes his head under my left arm, plunks his face between me and book, and grins like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
“Hi,” he announces. “There’s me!”
They don’t have a problem demanding attention. They don’t stop and think, “what if I inconvenience her?” They know what they want and demand it. And I oblige. There are days I put on my exercise gear in the morning and tell myself, “I’ll go to the gym after I feed the kids, put a load of laundry in, make a grocery list…”
You get the picture. A mother’s work is never done, and let’s face it: I will never get to the bottom of that List. There will always be a shoe that needs tying, a hug given, a dish to be washed. My family is oblivious to Mommy’s lack of me time, so when I snap, they rightly wonder, what’s wrong with her?
No fairy godmother will descend from the heavens and say to me, “My God, Evonne, how do you do it? You deserve the weekend off. Let me wash the dishes, watch the kids, and pick up the house while you go to yoga.” I need to take matters into my own hands.
So instead of wondering waiting until everything is done, which it never will be, I am going to take what I need.
Sunday morning yoga: Mine.
A night out with my girlfriends: Mine.
Uninterrupted reading time: Mine.
What else do I need? It’s been so long since I put myself first, I’m not even sure. Does this feel familiar?
The day before my five-year-old had to get on the bus for summer school, we rehearsed what would happen with her toys. The mermaid Ariel stood in for my daughter, her doll Stella represented me, and my husband was Panda. We used blocks to build the bus stop and decided that the couch would be our house. A pink Hello Kitty tin worked well as the bus.
I told my daughter that I would not be getting on the bus with her, but there would be grown-ups at the school to help her to her classroom once the bus dropped her off. She nodded and looked at me with her earnest dark brown eyes of hers, but I wasn’t sure that she understood that she’d have to do this alone.
“You may feel nervous or scared, but I know you can do this,” I told her.
I was talking to myself as much as I was talking to her. The only thing I knew about summer school were the letters I’d received with her bus route, classroom number, and teacher’s name. I contemplated driving her the first day and walking her to the classroom for my own peace of mind, but I nixed that idea: she cried whenever I dropped her off at preschool, and I didn’t want the separation anxiety to continue in kindergarten. Still, was it safe to let a five-year-old go off on the bus by herself? Seeing as hundreds of other kids were doing the same thing this summer, I assumed, “yes.” But a larger question loomed in my mind: Could I let her go?
The last time I felt anything close to this was when I left Zora with our nanny when I went back to work. Since then, I’d dealt with her feeling sad and anxious about leaving me. Now I was the one having trouble letting go.
Then I remembered a conversation I had with a woman whose children were grown. She told me that childhood is a series of endings and beginnings. I remember the sadness I felt when I stopped breastfeeding my daughter. Sure, no more nursing bras and middle of the night feedings, but I felt a pang of sadness that we wouldn’t share that special quiet time together. Or when she passed that infant stage of constantly wanting to be held and transitioned to constantly crawling and exploring, only checking in with me occasionally with a quick glance over her should or touching her fat little hand on my knee before toddling off again.
The first morning of summer school, my husband and I walked our daughter down the hill to the bus stop. I mentioned to anyone who would listen that I felt odd sending my child on bus to a school I’d never seen. My husband narrowed his eyes and shot me a look warning me not to let on to Zora that I was nervous.
“But I know that even if Zora is nervous that she can handle this new situation,” I added.
Bus #714 arrived a bit late. Zora turned to me, her forehead wrinkled, her lips pursed. “I’m going to miss you, Mama.”
“I will, too, but I know that you are going to have a good time,” I told her.
As the bus pulled away, I could her crinkled face in the window with tears streaming down her cheeks. I blew her a kiss and began the walk home with my husband.
“I can’t believe we just put her on a bus and sent her off like that,” I fretted.
The school bus passed us just as we neared our condo. From inside, I could see Zora waving goodbye.
Unexpectedly, I discovered that becoming a mother has helped me heal. I’m reminded of this during seemingly mundane moments: at night when my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Zora lays in a relaxed heap in my lap while I sing her Beatles songs like “Blackbird” and “In My Life;” in the morning when she insists on pouring herself a bowl of cereal (“Ima gonna do it myself!”), and I let her, knowing full well that more of the cereal will end up on the table than in the bowl; and anytime she announces that she’s mad at me for not letting her eat rainbow sprinkles for breakfast and slams the door to her room, only to come out minutes later to tell me that she loves me. I worried so much about giving Zora the love and attention I never had growing up. So I was surprised when my daughter was able to give something back to me.
Dr. McLaren moved the transducer around my belly pointing out an arm here, a femur there, the four chambers of my baby’s heart. In some cases, I could pick out the body part he was talking about, but mostly I felt as though he was using Doppler radar to examine a weather system that existed inside my body. Toward the end of the screening, Dr. McLaren focused on a particularly cloudy blob.
“It’s a girl,” he announced
My husband Rodney’s dark eyes got that shiny look. We grinned at each other. A girl! Then, I felt a twinge that I couldn’t identify.
Later, I recognized that twinge as anxiousness about having a daughter. Because my mother is schizophrenic, I had no experience with a true mother-daughter relationship. If I were having a boy, at least I wouldn’t have any mother/son expectations of myself. But with a girl, I felt as though I should, well, know more. But I didn’t. Without a blueprint I felt lost and inept; a daughter left me in unfamiliar territory. How could I develop a close relationship with a girl when I had broken relationship with my mother?
I set to work making up for this perceived gap by reading every baby book I could get my hands on. I filled my bookshelves with titles like Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book, The Girlfriend’s Guide To Pregnancy, and the classic What to Expect When You’re Expecting. These owner’s manuals described in great detail the care and maintenance of my daughter: how often to feed her (on demand); what color her poop should be and how it should smell (mustard-colored and sweet if you breast fed, which of course, you did); whether you should introduce the “family bed” to encourage bonding (yes). My husband Rodney listened as I read passages from my weekly email on in utereo development. “What fruit is she this week?” he’d ask jokingly, referring to the email’s description of how large the baby was. She dutifully grew from the size of a blueberry to a lime to an heirloom tomato, to, finally, a mini watermelon. Acquaintances and colleagues, who weren’t aware of my mom’s illness, exclaimed that my mother must be excited about her first granddaughter and asked if she’d be staying with me after my daughter was born. Not wanting to explain, I pressed my lips into a tight smile, and avoided their questions by saying that my mother-in-law would be helping me and my husband out.
I also scripted my daughter’s birth: I would try for natural childbirth but not rule out the pain-relieving epidural, I would give birth and immediately hold her to my breast and nurse her so she would get that first infusion of colostrum, the high-octane milk that would inoculate her against germs. She would sleep with me, skin-to-skin, and we would bond. It was a very tidy plan that was never meant to be.
In the summer of 2007, after missing my due date by nearly two weeks, I was induced early one morning. I endured three hours of hard contractions before saying yes to an epidural at 10:30 a.m. Zora Kathryn entered the world at 8:31 p.m weighing eight pounds. The heart rate monitor indicated that she was distressed during delivery, and when she emerged, the cord was wrapped around her neck. Although she began breathing on her own, her breath was ragged, so the nurses whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for observation. I remember returning to my room later that evening, crawling into the hospital bed, and putting my hand on my now empty belly before turning out the lights.
Because Zora was in NICU, I couldn’t nurse her right away and my checklist to becoming the perfect mother, the mother I never had, fell apart. She was drinking formula. She was sleeping in an incubator instead against my skin. I watched the nurses scoop her up with ease and confidence and coo to her, “What’s a big girl like you doing here?” While I was resting, my husband and his mom would go to the NICU and stroke her fuzzy head (“I think she has red hair!” my redheaded mother-in-law said excitedly) and squeeze her impossibly small hand. “She has quite a grip,” Rodney said proudly.
Two days later we were back at home, and my obsessions with the details continued. I assiduously charted feeding times and wore rubber band on my wrist to remember which breast I fed from last. But within weeks of coming home from the hospital, I learned my father had been admitted to a hospital in Connecticut: his doctors wanted to remove a tumor that was blocking his bile duct, and I needed to be with him. With my mother- in-law, Marian, in tow, we drove the six hours from our home in northern Virginia to stay at my aunt’s house in Connecticut. Zora was six-weeks old.
Once in Connecticut, I would nurse Zora, change her, and press my nose to her peach fuzz head to breathe in her warm, yeasty smell. Then, I’d hand her to Marian, who cared for her while I sat by my father’s bedside. To console myself during the long days at the hospital, I’d tell myself “She’s with her grandma.” But I couldn’t help thinking about my baby girl, and when I did, my breasts would ache and then leak the milk I couldn’t feed her. I felt exhausted and guilty. Late in the day, when I left the hospital and returned to my aunt’s house, Marian would tell me about Zora. “I know they say that babies don’t smile, but, Evonne, I swear she is smiling!” She told me how alert Zora was, taking in the world with her dark eyes and squawking when she was put down. “She doesn’t want to miss anything,” Marian told me.
Neither did I, but I was missing so many of those mundane moments in which a mother comes to know her baby, and there was nothing I could do about it. Though my father had been diagnosed with cancer and his prognosis was grim, he stabilized enough that we could go home to Virginia. Marian left to visit Rodney’s sister in Colorado. A week later, I received a frantic three-a.m.-phone call from my father’s girlfriend: he was unconscious and in the Intensive Care Unit. I drove up with Rodney and Zora the next day. When the doctors told me that there was little chance for recovery, I let them withdraw life support. My father died two days later. Rodney cared for Zora, who was now eight weeks old, while I made the funeral arrangements. At the time, I felt like I was a failure as a mother. My initial vision of how I would spend the early weeks of motherhood had been a far cry from the reality.
After the funeral we returned home to northern Virginia. In an effort to alleviate my anxiety after Zora was born, I had brought in a postpartum doula to show me the ropes. She was capable, self-described Mary Poppins who showed me how to change Zora’s diaper, sterilize bottles, and bathe Zora—all the things a mother typically teaches her daughter. Initially, I was grateful for these basic care lessons, which gave me a measure of confidence. But now that I was back from Connecticut, Mary Poppins had new lessons for me. If , when I put Zora down for a nap, she protested, I was to let Zora cry it out. Pacifiers were forbidden. Baby wearing was scoffed at. “Are you one of those mothers in the bush or working the fields?” she’d ask in her indignant British accent. “No! You don’t need to wear her. She needs to learn to be by herself.”
So I sat on the couch and tried to make small talk with the doula while Zora cried herself hoarse. Conflict! The Dr. Sear’s book said I was supposed to wear her. But Mary Poppins said no. Marian, who had returned from visiting Rodney’s sister in Colorado, despised Mary Poppins, subverted her advice, and encouraged me to hold Zora whenever she cried and give her pacis. “You can’t spoil them when they are this little,” Marian told me. I wanted to believe her, but I couldn’t trust myself to make a decision. And so I lived a double life, pretending to follow Mary Poppins’ advice, trying to listen to my mother-in-law, but in the end feeling clueless, alone, and just plain wrong. When we knew the doula was coming, Rodney, Marian, and I scrambled to hide the pacifiers so we didn’t have to listen to her lecture about teaching Zora self reliance.
Marian could see that my confidence was low. One afternoon while Zora napped, she told me how alone she felt when she had Rodney and his sister. Her own mother was an ocean away in The Netherlands, and Rodney’s father worked, so she followed the advice she heard most often: don’t spoil the child. “I wish I had listened to myself,” she told me.
Listening to myself turned out to be much easier once I could be alone with Zora. Once my hours with the doula ran out and Marian returned home to Brussels, Belgium, I had more moments when I stopped second guessing myself and let myself just be with my daughter. I joined a new mother’s group, and during our first meeting the facilitator asked us to answer this question: What do you want for your child? It was such a simple question, but for the first time I really stopped and considered what I wanted for Zora. I wanted her to take risks, I wanted her to feel express what she wanted without worrying about what other people might think, I wanted her to love and trust me, and to confide in me, and fight with me. I wanted for her all the wisdom and confidence that I felt I didn’t have. All the lessons my mother couldn’t teach me. The relationship I could never have.
Becoming the mother I wanted to be wasn’t contingent on breastfeeding, paci guilt, or using the cry-it-out method: it meant being with Zora; it meant listening and responding to her needs so that she could trust me. So I relaxed. I laid on the floor with Zora and dragged my long hair across her face to hear her gurgle and watch her eyes crinkle because it tickled. I learned that she was content resting in my arms drinking formula from a bottle and that I was less anxious, I learned to get a big belly laugh out of her by snapping a pair of pants inches from her face.
Rodney’s relaxed approach helped me, too. After putting Zora down for a nap, he’d eschew the baby books and crack open a book or a magazine or chat with me about what was going on in the news. Squeezing in a shower when you have a newborn is difficult, but Rodney experimented with bringing Zora in the shower. “What?” he asked when I shot him an incredulous look. “I’m multitasking.” Zora promptly turned a shade of persimmon and burst into tears. We laughed.
I was realizing that I didn’t have to be perfect. These kind of moments built my confidence as a mother. I began to accept what I didn’t know, tried to figure things out, all with the understanding that I was going to mess up, and that was okay. I wanted Zora to be confident enough to try something new and not be concerned about being wrong. The day I let her cry and endure that discomfort until she found her thumb was a small triumph for both of us.
Each moment with my daughter is a joy and a sorrow for me. In raising her, I recognize what my own mother could not give me. I can lock eyes with Zora and mirror her expressions, but schizophrenic mothers can’t do that. Zora will collapse into my lap and rest her head against my chest without a second thought. My mother shrugged off my affectionate hugs. One of the few positive physical memories I have is of her brushing my hair. If I close my eyes I can remember the gentle click of her rings and bracelets and the feeling of her long fingernails against my scalp. I still love it when someone massages my scalp.
I wonder who I might have been had I received the love, affection, and attention I give my own daughter. But along the way, the balance shifted from worrying about “am I good enough” and dwelling on my loss, to giving what I never had to my daughter. I had planned for all the practicalities of Zora—her birth, the nursing, the napping—but I hadn’t counted on how she would heal me.
When I read that 84% of moms at work spend between 15 minutes and an hour a day shopping online (Loechner, Media Research Center, July 15, 2010), I wasn’t surprised. After an evening or a weekend with Sweetpea + spouse, I relish the quiet time at work and the opportunity that it gives me to get things done.
What kind of things? Example: I’ve run out of both moisturizer and allergy medicine. I know that it would be less expensive for me to run to Costco to replenish my supply, but instead I found myself browsing the virtual aisles of Amazon.com. Sure I’ll have to pay for shipping, but a trip to Costco in Pentagon City has NEVER been an in-and-out trip. Parking, toddler wrangling, incidental purchases, plus the ridiculously long lines mean that I may save a few bucks on the items, but I’ve lost a lot of a finite, treasured resource: time.
What’s your time worth? MSN Money’s Know the Value of Your Time Calculator can help you figure out the value of your leisure time. After plugging in the numbers, I learned that my leisure time is worth just under $40/ hour. This means that even if I pay an extra $10 for shipping moisturizer and allergy medicine instead of languishing at Costco, it’s worth it.
Of course, all of this assumes that you have discretionary funds to buy back your time. Some months you may not have the extra money and off to Target and Costco you must go. But consider this take-away from AOL’s “Mall Behind the Spreadsheet” Report:
[Women] control $4.3 trillion, roughly 73 percent of U.S. household spending.1 And they do it all while juggling work, home and family life. Many – particularly moms – manage to shoehorn 27 hours of activities into the standard 24-hour day.2 It should come as no surprise, then, that 40% shop online during work hours. (But don’t tell them we told you.)