In 2016

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2016 was my first full year as a stay-at-home mom. My duties included, but were not limited to: Changing diapers. Preparing meals. Basic housekeeping duties such as vacuuming, dish washing, and collecting slightly-used tissues from communal areas. Wrestling screaming children into pants. Wrestling screaming children into car seats. Wrestling screaming children in various public places. (In general, the wrestling was meant to keep said children from harm – being struck by a car in a parking lot, for example – but often made me feel as if the harm I was trying to avoid might be less traumatic than my face, inches from theirs, hollering, “STOP IT! I’M TRYING TO HELP YOU!”)

In 2016 I found myself needing something in my life other than these mother-related responsibilities. I joined a second book club. I volunteered for the leadership committee of our local chapter of MOPS (Moms of Pre-Schoolers). I took up photography in the most intense way possible, by committing to a 365-day photo challenge in which I promised no one in particular that I would shoot, edit, and post photos of my life every. single.day. I spent too much time staring at beautiful mothers and children on Instagram and decided to start a new Instagram community, called Honestly Parents, devoted to sharing pictures of imperfect families.

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It helps that they’re cute.

All of these pasttimes, while fulfilling in their own ways, were attempts to regain the qualities I felt I had lost at some point in my life as mother. In my home, with my children, I felt tired and irritated. The demands of motherhood, the meeting of everyone’s needs but my own, made me feel hopeless and unaccomplished. I would find myself saying terribly unfair things to my young children: How am I supposed to get anything done if you just keep asking me to get you things to eat? or Mommy wishes she could play right now, but she has a bunch of boring grown-up things to do. 

On top of the adjustment to staying at home, 2016 was the year that I stopped nursing our youngest daughter. The calories I was once able to consume were no longer nurturing a child, but collecting along my hips and waistline. I had already, in a triumphant and overly-smug closet clean-out, gotten rid of my post-pregnancy “fat pants”, and I found myself unable to button clothing that had fit me only six months before. In 2016, I was guilty of directing hatred at my own body. Nothing looked right on me. My husband told me I was beautiful and I scoffed. This body that brought three lovely girls into the world became my enemy. I realized, in one of the most depressing moments of my life, that I would need to buy a larger size of underwear. I came home with something (no offense, mom, but hopefully you see where I’m going with this) my mother would wear, and I thought to myself, “So this is what it is to be a mom. Gigantic underwear, a dirty house, and kids that think you would rather fold laundry than play with them.”

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A self-portrait of motherhood.

2016 is nearly over, and a new year is about to begin. We will celebrate birthdays and holidays. We will watch the seasons change. We will fill our calendars with obligations and activities; we will try to pencil in something that brings us pleasure. We will have sleepless nights when the children wake up, one after another, for no apparent reason. We will find scribbles on surfaces we could have sworn were spotless just a moment ago, and decide we are too tired to clean them, because what’s the use anyway? We will feel despair, at times. We will cry at stupid songs and yell at our children when they don’t deserve it. We will berate ourselves when we don’t deserve it.

The year to come will be no different than this one; life will continue as it has been, because the life you lived in 2016 is the life you were given. Sometimes it will be almost unbearably beautiful, and you will think to yourself that this, all of it, is a gift. You will call yourself blessed and post sentimental photos of you and your children, and you will feel happy. Other times you won’t, because the things that make you feel unhappy now are not going to magically disappear. Allowing yourself to recognize the great, great burden of motherhood does not make you ungrateful. It makes you a real, human woman.

I am a person who loves a good toast; it could have something to do with my appreciation for a good glass of wine (related, I believe, to my recent need for larger undergarments). And so, if I am able to stay awake until midnight this weekend to welcome the new year, I will say this: “To 2017: I embrace you, all of you, before I even know you. May I do the same for myself this year.”

Cheers.

 

1500 Miles in the Car with My Kids- And Why I’ll Do It Again

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754 miles. That’s the driving distance from Anderson, South Carolina to Brooklyn, New York. That’s the distance I need to cover if I want to visit my two older sisters, who for some mysterious reason cannot be convinced to relocate to my pleasant southern town. (It could be because they are sophisticated urbanites who dislike rural practices such as driving in cars and living in spaces larger than 800 square feet.)

It’s a distance much more easily traversed by airplane, but with three small children, “easy” is a relative term. The last time we flew to New York, two years ago, we were so distracted at LaGuardia while waiting for our return flight, so concerned with keeping the kids occupied and fed, that we missed our boarding announcement and the plane flew away without us. With all of our luggage. And they couldn’t book us on another flight until the next morning, so my sister came back to get us and Matt had to cancel all of his patients for the next day. He also had to walk to the CVS closest to my sister’s apartment and buy diapers for Ceci and underwear for me. And since everything in New York is smaller and narrower, including the aisles of CVS, the underwear was way up high and he was forced to ask an employee to get them down for him. The whole thing was humiliating. We vowed we would never make the same mistake again. So this year, when we decided it was time for another Brooklyn trip, we knew we would drive.

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The long drive itself is nothing new; my parents still live in Upstate New York, and we make the trek up there at least twice a year. As I’ve said, the expense and stress of flying with the whole family just doesn’t feel worth it to us, especially after several nightmare experiences of getting delayed or stranded. (The first time we ever took Maggie on an airplane, she was four months old. We flew from Charlotte to Syracuse, circled the airport, which had shut down due to blizzard conditions, and then turned around and returned to Charlotte. Because apparently that made sense to someone. It was the five most pointless hours of my entire life, but at least it makes a good story.)

Over the years, though, our attitudes about how we should handle the drive have changed. For starters: with kids, it’s no longer a 13-hour trip. They don’t have the same bladder control their parents have. When we’ve been in the car too long, they sob and strain against their seat belts and scream, “Let me get out of here!”And when we do take a break to let them run around, the process of getting them back into the car truly makes us look like kidnappers. As a result, we’ve made the following adjustments to our driving routine:

  1. We leave in the early evening and drive overnight. And when the children sleep, we put the pedal to the metal and do our best to shave minutes off the GPS estimated arrival time. Which reminds me of the time we got pulled over for speeding 15 miles into the 754 mile drive back…
  2. We do dinner at Chick-fil-A. Always. Hooray for indoor playgrounds! Hooray for excellent service and seriously delicious fast food! They’re not even paying me for this plug; in fact, they probably wish we wouldn’t stop there for dinner every single time we make the drive. Our kids are wild and in pajamas and we spend a combined total of about 45 minutes in the bathroom.
  3. We abandoned all our principles and bought a portable DVD player. Matt and I used to be proud of our old-school stance concerning technology in the car. We envisioned playing family games and singing songs and enjoying a good old-fashioned road trip. I guess we just didn’t understand the value of silence. We now understand the value of silence.

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There’s no way around it- the trip from South Carolina to New York is grueling. In a lot of ways, it’s hard on all of us. There are people I know who don’t get why we put ourselves through it. “Just tell them you’re not coming,” they say. “Tell them you don’t want to do it.”

But as much as we dread the drive, as much as we complain about the exhaustion and the traffic and having to please the maniacs in the backseat, we do it because we want to. Because living 754 miles away from my family is hard enough, and I can’t imagine choosing not to see them. Because my daughters deserve to know their aunts, uncle and cousins. Because they benefit from spending time in a place so different from the one in which they live. Because of all the reasons to drive 1500 miles, family is the best possible one. 

This most recent trip had its stressful moments. There was the time when Alex, who just turned one, and Ceci, who is two, were both crying uncontrollably in their car seats, and Ceci yelled at Alex, “STOP COPYING ME!” There was the moment when Matt went to retrieve the car to load it up for the trip home and realized that it was… gone. As were all of the other cars on that particular block. Whoops. Family vacation fail.

And then there were these moments: My daughters’ faces, amazed, when they spotted the Statue of Liberty, lit-up outside their car windows, at 2:00 in the morning. My girls and their cousins marching down a Brooklyn street, arms linked, chanting nonsense words and giggling with their whole hearts. Riding a carousel beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Boarding a subway train, an experience as foreign to a kid from Anderson, South Carolina as stepping  outside your house without shoes on is to a kid from Brooklyn.

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1500 miles is not so much, does not feel so impossible, when your destination is a place you really want to be, when the people you journey toward are the people you really want to be with. Eventually (with the help of Frozen and The Lego Movie) we might just learn to enjoy the ride, too.

 

Why Every Birthday Wrecks Me

1Day99_0003Two days ago, my youngest child turned one. I never thought I’d be the mom who cried on my daughter’s birthday, but there were a lot of things I never would have imagined doing, before. That’s what becoming a mother does to a woman: it grabs hold of the person she was, or thought she was, it tears that person apart – yes, literally – and it rewrites her.  What had seemed impossible in her old life suddenly seems possible – for better or worse- to this new, revised version of herself.

But here’s the truth: this wasn’t the first time that I’ve dissolved into emotional anarchy on my child’s birthday. It happens every time, and why? Because I want to have three children ages five and under FOREVER? Uh, no. Not particularly. Because my understanding, when I gave birth to these girls, was that they would stay tiny and manageable, like miniature dachshunds? Cute, but no. Because the thought of finding a place in my house for all of their birthday gifts threatens to bring on a bout of long-dormant vertigo? Well, yes, but that’s not exactly it.

What is a birthday, to a mother? It is the finality of a year. It is the passage of 365 individual days, one indistinguishable from the next, the way the cars of a train or the dashed lines on the highway blur together as they speed past. I admit that in some ways, a birthday feels a little like grief. Where did a year go? What was I doing? What if I can’t recall all the strides they made, every little way that they grew and changed? Where do those memories go when they aren’t hoarded like treasures?

A birthday, to a mother, is a mad attempt to remember it all. It is the realization that we cannot remember it all, that in the past year the compartments of our brains have been gummed up with sleeplessness and shopping lists and frustration and perhaps one too many glasses of wine. Not everything that should have stuck, did. We see that as our failing. A birthday is a reminder that not every memory is going to stick, that most of the days we have with these beautiful human beings will simply be lived, not preserved. But a mother has a hard time letting go.

These feelings of wistfulness and regret do not diminish the sense of celebration, the joy, the desire to make our overwhelming love known to our child on this day, of all days. No, this is something else we learn quickly: that motherhood is all of it, at the same time, a big soup of loss and pain and love and pride. Our children grew inside of us and we brought them into this world, where they will continue to grow, apart from us. One year at a time.

And while we might wish- as the candles flicker on the cake and the cameras flash and everyone smiles wide- that we could make time stand still, ours is not the wish that matters, today. So we put it away. We smile wide, we live in the happiness of this moment, and we try to hold on to all we can of it, because we are mothers, and we cannot help ourselves.