What I Thought I Knew About Staying at Home

I’m sitting on my back deck at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, drinking a pumpkin coffee and reveling in the coming of autumn. I’ve dragged Baby Alex’s activity bouncer out here with me, and she’s listlessly pressing buttons that play kid versions of classical  music while two caterpillars of snot work their way toward her upper lip. Life isn’t perfect, of course, but with the older girls at pre-school and “Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn and John drifting through the open kitchen window, I can say that it’s solidly good.
A year ago at this time I would have been just starting my third period social studies class, a collection of twenty of the dearest and most adorable seventh-graders that has ever existed. Unlike my nightmare second period, which seemed hell-bent on driving me out of the teaching profession (Congrats, second period: you did it!), these kids left me feeling lucky every day. They were what I loved about teaching. When I asked them to change the lyrics of a popular song to make it about the French Revolution, they agonized over whether to use Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” or something by Lorde. They made music videos and album art. They willingly performed their songs in front of the class. I mean, they made those fifty minutes each day delightful.
But I was pregnant with my third child, and we all know that the teaching profession isn’t just fifty euphoric minutes and a feeling of accomplishment that you’ve taught them the basic difference between mercantilism and capitalism. Even my third period couldn’t convince me to stay.
It was a process, the decision to quit teaching, at least for the time being, and to stay at home. It involved a series of conversations with myself – that is, between “Working Me” and the woman I thought I would become, let’s call her “Fake Future Stay-at-Home Me”. These conversations went something like this:

Working Me: I’m thinking of becoming a stay at home mom-

Fake Future Stay-at-Home Me: If you’re going to join the club, you need to start learning the proper lingo. The commonly used abbreviation is SAHM. So, you’re thinking of becoming an SAHM?

Working Me: Do people really say that? It doesn’t seem any shorter. 

Fake Future Stay-at-Home Me: It is. I would know.

Working Me: Okay, so I’m thinking of becoming an SAHM. 

Fake Future Stay-at-Home Me nods appreciatively. She is very good at listening. Also, her hair looks pretty.

Working Me: But I worry that staying at home is going to send my daughters the wrong message. I want them to know that women can have fulfilling careers outside of the home.

Fake Future Stay-at-Home Me: I think the real question is, do you want your children to know you love them? Isn’t that the most important message? 

I thought I would be a stay-at-home superwoman.
Turns out I already was one.

Working Me: Good point. So anyway, when I see stay-at-home moms dropping their kids off at school, they are almost always wearing yoga pants or some other variation of workout gear. That’s because they are super into fitness, right? And they have more time for it?

Fake Future Stay-at-Home Me: That’s exactly right. Now that I don’t have papers to grade and lessons to plan, I have more time for everything. Whenever I go out in public, I’m either on my way to or from the gym. I feel great. Have you seen my abs? 

Working Me: I have. They’re impressive. Do you eat healthier now that you’re staying at home? Lots of salad and light, home-cooked meals?

Fake Future Stay-at-Home Me: When I worked, my kids hated vegetables. Now they love them. It’s probably because I’m finally able to execute those ideas I see in magazines and on Pinterest. Just last night I made a plate of broccoli look like Oscar the Grouch. 

Working Me: How many Pinterest projects have you done since becoming an SAHM?

Fake Future Stay-at-Home Me: Oh, gosh. 400? 500? I lose count.

Working Me: And your sex life must be great.

Fake Future Stay-at-Home Me: Obviously. 

She convinced me, this confident, put-together version of myself. And I don’t hold it against her, even though everything she said was a lie. Maybe I knew it even then, that it was too good to be true. That a woman with three small children is a woman with three small children, regardless of whether she works 9-5. The exhaustion, the frustration, the feeling of being totally overwhelmed – none of those things would change. I’m still not on Pinterest.  My abs are non-existent. My vegetables are boring. But I get to watch my baby sleep on the back deck on a Wednesday morning while leaves spin to the earth and little green lizards soak up what they can of the sun.

In a few minutes we will have to go pick up her sisters. They’ll climb into the car and tell me about their morning, and the afternoon will stretch out in front of us, daunting as ever. So much time to fill. It’s a good problem to have.

Five Minutes a Day

It’s one of those Adirondack mornings that I dream about when I wake in my South Carolina home, where most days it reaches a humid 90 degrees by 9 a.m. I’ve come here to vacation with my family, the same as I have each summer since I was born, except now there are more of us. My two sisters and I have brought four of the five kids to a small playground at the rural airport just down the road from our camp. They are happy; my girls see their cousins only two or three times a year, and their delight is almost painful to me, a reminder of how far away we live from one another. 

Swing selfie… Swilfie? 
The four-year-olds climb and hang on a structure built to resemble a helicopter. The one and two-year-olds descend a tiny slide with a repetitive, almost obsessive determination. While Beth, my oldest sister, watches the little ones, I join my sister Meghan on the swings. 
It’s not something I do often. Playgrounds are for supervision, for readying snacks and mediating conflicts. Swinging is something I used to do, before I had real responsibilities, back when I still felt young.  
In grade school it was my activity of choice at recess, pumping my legs in time with the other kids with a force that lifted the legs of the swingset out of the hard-packed gravel and made us shriek, believing, every time, that this time it really would tip over. 
As a teenager, my friend with a car would pick me up to go get ice cream or a gas station cappuccino. We’d drive to the playground at Hughes Elementary, get out and dangle on the swings, looking out over the Mohawk Valley, which was green and beautiful in a certain early evening light. We talked about boys. We talked about the future, which was so close. How everything would change. We’d swing, because growing up was scary and we liked the way the wind felt in our hair.
These memories are present in the cool of the chains in my hands, in the way my toes push off from the ground. The sun is warm and the air smells like pine trees and dirt. I lean back, my feet against the blue sky.  Meghan glances over at me, points out that we are just… about… synchronized. And then we are, our legs rising and falling in exactly the same rhythm. It’s an effort to stay that way but we try, laughing, the kids on the helicopter pausing mid-flight to stare. 
I recognize this feeling as joy, but it’s more than that. Joy is scattered in my every day. It is my baby’s fuzzy head on my cheek, my two-year-old walking around wearing a hood that has monkey ears on it, her curls bursting out on either side of her face. She calls it her “sweatshirt hat”. Joy is not always easy, but it’s there when I remember to look for it. No, this is something far rarer. This is fun, uncomplicated by stress or worry. This is me allowing myself to let go, briefly, of the person I have somehow become: tired and impatient, plagued with papers to sign, doctor’s appointments to make, meals to plan. 
Three weeks ago I put my feet back on the ground, skidded to a stop, and walked away from that swing. I was smiling. I felt new. “If I could do that for five minutes a day,” I told my sisters, “I would be a better person.”
A few days later, we drove back to South Carolina and resumed our lives. But I can’t let go of that feeling, that freedom, the weight lifted as I was suspended in air. Five minutes a day of fun, of real laughter. Five minutes where I can feel like I used to, like I’m about to embark on something big. Like I’m about to actually take flight. 

Mom-Style: It Happened to Me

Sometimes being a parent is depressing.

I’m not complaining, I’m just stating a fact. I think about my pre-children life all the time, how much easier it was to pack for a weekend trip, say, or to run a quick errand.  I mean, the light fixture in our kitchen takes a special lightbulb, and we’ve just been eating in the dark since it went out a few days ago. It could be weeks before we get to Lowe’s. No joke, I would rather eat in the dark than attempt to take all three of my kids to a store.

One of the things I miss most about the old Jenny, though, is what I used to look like. I know it’s shallow, but there it is. My husband says I’m more attractive than when we met; he likes that I’m low maintenance. He’s sweet. But I miss having a body that can be trusted to remain at a fairly reliable weight. I miss knowing for sure what size bra to buy, which pants will fit me correctly. Pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood times three have changed all that.

Don’t know what to wear? How bout a baby?

My closet, right now, contains a range of sizes, clothes I bought in the early stages of pregnancy and in the months after giving birth. They’re too big for me now. At this moment I’m wearing a pair of saggy “boyfriend” jeans from Old Navy. On me, they should be called It’s a good thing you’re married because you would NEVER land a boyfriend in these jeans. However, they’re preferable to (and far more comfortable than) the other jeans in my closet, the Hey! Check out my muffin top! ones, also known as the Just wear an extra long top and no one will know your top button is undone jeans.

The last time I bought myself a nice pair of jeans was at least seven years ago, but I just don’t see the point. While it is very likely that I am done riding the whole pregnancy roller coaster, I’m still waiting to see where my body will decide to settle. Like it’s a freaking traveler on the Oregon Trail. Plus, I can’t justify spending a lot of money on an article of clothing that will be soiled within the first hour of wearing it by either a) spit-up, b) poop, c) snot, d) a condiment that was intended for dipping but which my child is eating with a spoon, e) some kind of art utensil, or f) all of the above. So I shop the Merona clearance racks at Target and make do with wearing combinations of my new stuff, which only kind of fits me, and my old stuff, which feels new to me because it’s the first time in five years that I’ve managed to cram my hips into it.

And it wouldn’t be so bad, trying to piece together an outfit from the five shirts and two pairs of shorts that fit me, but then there’s the issue of hair and makeup. The issue being, who the hell has time for that? Every time I see a fellow mom with her hair sleekly blow-dried, every highlighted strand sprayed into place, face powdered and lips bright with lipstick, I wonder what I’m doing wrong. (What business does she have looking so good, anyway? She must be trying to have an affair. That’s the only explanation.) Do I need to get up earlier? I’ve tried. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what time I wake up: I never end up looking like those gorgeous lipstick moms, and after I have spent forty-five minutes attempting to beautify, it’s ruined when I get all sweaty tackling my two-year-old to the floor because she’s refusing to have her teeth brushed.

I’m not complaining, really, I’m not. I am what I am. I’m a mom. My looks should be the last thing on my mind, especially because I would hate to send my daughters the message that that’s what matters. I guess that, with all the insanity in my life, it would be nice to look like I have it together, even if I don’t. And I know that things will start to plateau soon, and I might actually get to go shopping for clothes that fit me. At least, I hope it’s soon, because it really would be nice to make a detour to Lowe’s. Until then, I’ll be hiding in my dark kitchen.

Why It’s Not Creepy to Watch Your Children Sleep

During the daylight hours, my children are loud. The older two chase each other in circles through the kitchen and dining room, narrowly missing the baby in her bouncy seat, or stopping to yell “Goo goo, Alex!” in her face, which for some reason she loves. Sometimes they choose to add drums to this circuit, or a whistle, or a plastic shopping cart that sounds like a Mack truck rolling over our floor tiles. And they need something, always. “Mom!” they say. “Can I have some milk? Can I watch a show? Can I look at pictures on your phone? Can I have something to eat? Can you read me a book? Can you play a game with me? Mom! Maggie just hit me! Ceci just said I was a flying apple! I have a poopy!” Meanwhile, the baby cycles through her baby emotions of hungry, sleepy, happy, angry, and chimes in where she sees fit.

But then 8:00 rolls around. Well, 8:30… 9:00 at the latest. Books are read, songs sung, lights turned off, night lights turned on, and these people who have spent their day in motion – running, arguing, discovering, tantrum-throwing – are still and silent. And while you love your kids all the time, obviously, it seems that with their volume turned down, your love is dialed up.

Like the other night, for instance, I crept into the room that Ceci and Alex share. Ceci had been tucked in a short time before, and I was now laying Alex down in her crib for the night. As I tiptoed toward the door, trying to make my escape as quietly as possible, Ceci shifted and groaned softly around the edges of her pacifier. Something about that moment hit me. I felt my love for her as an actual, physical pain deep in my belly, a fierce animal protectiveness: She’s amazing. She’s mine.

When Maggie, my oldest, was five or six days old I woke in the middle of the night in agony, unable to turn my head. It was my habit of staring at my newborn baby as she nursed that had caused my neck muscles to rebel, and the symbolism wasn’t lost on me. Watching over my child, it seemed, would never be easy or comfortable. Often it would hurt like hell. In those days, though, I had little else to do but look at her. In the following months we would hang out on the couch, me half-watching TV or half-grading papers or taking forty-five minutes to fold a basket of laundry while she reclined in her Boppy pillow. I would fold a pair of pants, take a picture of her. Locate the match to a sock, and then edge closer to examine her as she slept, the veins in her eyelids, her parted lips, her hands in tiny fists, prepared, even then, for a fight. She was my world. I couldn’t look away.

It’s harder now; my world has expanded. Distracted by my daily tasks, just trying to get everyone fed and bathed and changed, I find it difficult to look at my own children closely (that is, when they slow down long enough for me to catch a glimpse). At nighttime and nap times my fear of waking them almost always outweighs my desire to watch them dream – I mean, a run-in with an overtired Pray girl is like a scene straight out of The Walking Dead. It ain’t pretty.

But on occasion an opportunity will present itself. Maybe we were out late, and promised the kids we would sneak in for a kiss when we got home. Maybe Ceci is sick, and I need to check in on her during the night, or Maggie passes out in the middle of a book, even though she clearly isn’t tired.  Just today Alex fell asleep on the bathroom floor while I ran her water for a bath and I left her there to finish her nap, because I think there’s some kind of adage about that.

I love my kids all the time, obviously. But sometimes, when they are still and silent, when their breath comes in sighs and their cheeks are pink with their own body heat, when the only thing they need from me is to let them be, I can feel my love swell, bigger than I even knew.

They are amazing. They are mine. Someday they are going to hate me for taking so many pictures of them sleeping, but for now they are… waking up?

Oh. They are their father’s. Forget everything I just said. They are totally his.

The Look (And Why I Love It)

This isn’t actually the look I’m talking about, but it’s a look.
And a darn cute one.

Yesterday afternoon I was heading out of the YMCA with my three kids: Alex dangling in her car seat  carrier from my straining bicep, Maggie doing her crazy version of hopscotch on a “Hop Back to School” decal on the floor, and Ceci’s feet spinning like the Roadrunner as she attempted to keep up with her big sister. As I herded the older two through the turnstiles and toward the door, I noticed a middle-aged woman watching us closely, a subtle smile on her face. Our eyes met and we acknowledged each other in that silent, secret mom language: The Look.

The Look generally lasts only a few seconds at the most, but it carries with it decades, perhaps even generations, of memories and parental experiences. It says this: I may not know your name, but I know you, because I was you. I know the joy of watching your children run wildly and your desperate hope that they won’t embarrass you in public. I know the aches in your muscles and your desire to escape, if only for an hour, to a place where no one demands anything of you. My children were once as small as yours, and I would give anything to be back there again, to warm baby skin and unrestrained laughter. So I envy you, a bit, you and your fledgling love, but I pity you too, because you are drowning in the day-to-day. I see your struggle, and I understand.

That’s The Look. I see it everywhere, in grocery stores and airports, at the library and on the rare occasion when we venture into a restaurant. It is sometimes accompanied by a small gesture, a door held, a jovial, “You’ve got your hands full!” To these, I can say thank you, but for the others, the ones who catch my eye from a distance, I must reserve my gratitude and pass it on. Because I am also a giver of The Look. I know its power, and while my hands may be too full for me to help in any other way, The Look is something I can always impart to those who seem to need it.

Most of all, I love that The Look carries no trace of accusation. It isn’t a judgment of my inability to keep my kids obedient, quiet, and under control.  (Though I’ve gotten those looks too.) I’m with you, it says. I get it. I know. It’s kind of like when you’re hiking and you see someone who is on their way back down. It’s not all uphill, you think, feeling a sort of kinship with your fellow hikers. In just a little while, that will be me.

So you march uphill and you bear your load, whatever that might be: a busy schedule, a dirty house, an exhaustion that you can’t help but believe you will carry with you always. Every once in a while you’ll remember to glance up – everyone says you’re supposed to, that you have to look around and appreciate the little things. It will take your mind off of how damn hard this is. If you’re lucky, you might just catch a Look thrown your way.

And honest, your load will feel a little lighter.