Grappling

In Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, she describes working in the clothing department at Wal-Mart. All day, she’s responsible for cleaning up the continually unfolding mess, sorting, folding, and hanging clothes that customers have removed from the racks. Of course, her job is never finished. There are always more t-shirts in the changing rooms, sweaters unfolded, jeans carried off but not purchased. And the customer—you know, the one she’s “serving”?—the customer begins to look like the enemy in her Sisyphean slog toward making things neat. She cringes when she sees one coming. In a workplace with little freedom, flexibility, or opportunity for creativity, the customers aren’t the point of her job; they’re her opponents, existing only to set her even farther back on the unending road to ever feeling finished.

I’m horrified to realize how often, lately, I’ve thought of the little people in our house just that way. I crave a sense of completion. I crave the moment when everything is done and put away and quiet. And from that point of view, the people who poop and throw sweet potatoes and upend baskets of toys and need stories read and hair combed and medicines administered…they start to look, in my messed up, overtired mind, a lot like Barbara Ehrenreich’s customers. “Please,” I think, as I wipe one’s nose while the other clambers up my shirt. “Can’t you please stop needing things so that I can get on with…”

But get on with what, exactly?

Like everyone, I have a list of things I’d do with a quiet hour: sort old clothes, wrap wedding gift, vacuum stairs, shave legs. And beyond that: learn Spanish, run intervals, write poems. But is any of that enough to make up the life I really want?

Lately I’ve been in this little house of parenthood, pressing my face up against the glass, staring out at the free, free world. Why am I in here? Why?

This is nearly impossible to write about, because I fear I’m creating something my daughters will one day be able to read but not understand. Let me be clear: our children are fantastic and deeply loved. There is no chance I’d wish either of them away. I think you understand, though: I love my children fiercely. And sometimes I wish, equally fiercely, that I were not their mother.

Years ago, without children, dreaming of parenthood, I got a lot wrong. I missed, totally, how much I could sometimes not like it. But I was right (and I’d forgotten, until recently, that I’d even anticipated this) in looking forward to our child-raising years as a time of happy chaos. Of things being in disorder, always messy, a bit out of control, exhausting. I even craved the mess and rush, fearing, as I headed into fertility treatments, a constant life of dry, plain neatness.

I’ve come to know the chaos of my dreams well. The library books are overdue, the dishes aren’t done, and when did I last have a haircut? I’ve been letting the chaos get me down so much, though, that I’d forgotten happy could come in the same phrase. That I wanted this. That, really thinking about the alternative, even knowing what I know now, I’d make the same choice again.

I have thought so often about the alternate universe in which A and I were not able to conceive and have children. I think that some people who’ve been through infertility experience it as a great magnifier of gratitude. But when I think, “What if we hadn’t been able to have them?” I feel only a kind of rote gratitude, plus a heap of guilt for not liking it enough. And I forget that something came before the fear of not having this: the decision that we wanted it.

When I think, “What if we’d decided not to do this?”, that’s when I see that, however much I’d love to have more breaks from this life to do all of the necessary and fulfilling things on my list, the quiet and calm—the unending space and time for just me or even just A and me—wouldn’t be enough. Wasn’t, and still isn’t—no matter how much I crave the better parts of it—what I want for my life, for our lives.

Last week I read The War of Art. It’s about about what keeps us from doing the creative work we want to do, and one of its big themes is: Do your work. He means: You know what you’re here to do. Don’t waste time thinking about it, complaining about it, talking about it, or trying in a million ways to avoid it. You’ll never get it done if you don’t do it.

Somehow it helps me lose my awful attitude when I think of my kids as my work. Work in Pressfield’s sense: what I’m here to do, what only I can do.

I’ve never quite been one to think of motherhood as my calling. And I have other work in this world, too—fitting that in is a whole other story. But, indisputably, for a good chunk of my days, the care and love and education of these two great girls is it.

Thinking of it this way quiets me, somehow. I am not here (it is not possible) to quell all of their needs and finally arrive at some nirvana of peaceful, completed family life. I am here to see what my family needs from me, and to do it. And to find enough respite from this work so that, during the times when it’s mine, I can do it well, rather than pedaling fruitlessly toward its nonexistent end.

Whether this makes any sense or not, it’s what I’m using today to claw my way out of the hole.

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5 thoughts on “Grappling

  1. This is a beautiful sentiment – I have been where you describe – and I’m sure resonates with many.

    Thank you.

  2. Just saw your other post. I don’t think this is incoherent at all! You write so many things that make me say YES and this was one of them.

    I have realized something similar recently–that I keep waiting for my life to begin, maybe when the kids are older, when the truth is that THIS is my life, right here, right now.

    We’ve been talking to a financial planner recently and we had this big talk about goals. I realized that the only career I have ever wanted is to be a writer. Not a technical writer, not a journalist, but a fiction writer. It seems like a ridiculous goal to have. But every day I spend telling myself it’s ridiculous is another day I don’t do anything to make it happen. I think I need to get that book you mentioned.

    Well, talk about incoherent–I hope that wasn’t a totally unrelated tangent.

  3. I agree with Melissa – not incoherent at all. Made me think, actually. I hear you–the image of your face up against the glass was just perfect. I’m sorry you’re in that place at the moment, and hope you feel better soon (and that you at least got some decent rest out of it all). See you in a couple of weeks.

  4. I am late commenting, as usual (wrapped up in chaos of my own!), but I too have those thoughts as I’m climbing up the stairs to tend to Jamie AGAIN, an hour after he should be asleep. I’ll wonder what I’d be doing right this second, if we had never had him. I imagine myself at happy hour, or traveling, or at a play, or whatever. And then I remember that so much of what I have is because of him, not the least of which is my marriage.

    Hold on to the happy part of chaos. Because we’ll never really know what might have been. And I don’t think it could possibly be happier than life today.

    Also, don’t forget, they get older. I see glimpses of what life will be like in just a couple of years. And it looks like a lot of fun. This is the short part – it’s hard to loose sight of that.

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