I have a touch of agoraphobia. It’s a seasonal malady. In the beginning of summer when, finally, we’re not required to get out of the house at 8:30 in the morning, we lounge like sea lions on the couches in our pajamas until noon every day.
Easily, I could do it the whole summer, tipping off my rock only to feed and maybe take a lazy lap or two while I’m up. But I have baby sea lions, and they need to get out more.
And so sometime in late June, we start to venture out. After breakfast, I apply sunscreen, pack lunches and beach bags, towels, toys, bike, scooters, snacks, and books on tape for the car. I gas up, supervise and oversee, reapply sunscreen, pick up, pack up, get home and start dinner. Repeat. And repeat until fall.
Sometimes we go with other moms and kids and sometimes we go by ourselves: one mom, a brother and a sister. Where’s dad? Dad’s at work.
I want to stay home. The red couch in our living room calls to me. Come sit! Hang out, dear! Look! Magazines! And don’t you have some writing to do?
Yes, yes. Don’t tease.
I could turn on the TV or boot up video games on the laptop, and my children would be happy and quiet for hours. I could sit all day and night then. But no. I’m home with kids in the summer to enjoy them, to give them their mom and all she has to offer.
Ha! The couch is mocking me. The couch has seen what I have to offer between the hours of six and eight in the morning and the state of mom in general here in late summer.
See kids get up too early. See kids fight over mom’s lap. See them banished harshly to lonely ends of the couch. See kids kick mom, and when she struggles to her feet with a snarl and limps away to the kitchen, kick each other. Hear them bark, clash and make a racket, take tusks and clubs to each other. The smaller one takes a beating, and big mama appears in the doorway with a jar of peanut butter and murder in her eye. Threats. Time-outs. And thus begins a day. Not with gentle swaying peace, but with assault, violence and spilt blood, regrettable words, bad blood.
I’m no martyr. I always pack a bag for myself too -- books, paints, Bananagrams, and impractical bulky things too (--don’t laugh!--like a loom) that I won’t get a chance to use, but that I hoist along anyway just in case.
There must have been a time when I set up my things on some shaded knoll, and I sat in a beach chair or kneeled in front of my loom and plucked and strummed while my children played peacefully in the valley below.
I go to the beach with a faint memory of such moments, a subtle pining…
But that’s just not the way it goes – not when you’re the mom. Moms set things up so the children can do the plucking. We teach them to swim and watch their underwater tricks, we hand them their water bottles and say drink.
Preservation of self, and the flourishing of my offspring. These two strongest forces in nature clash in me. Discussing the pros and cons with friends once of waiting until one’s thirties or forties to have our children as we all did, a friend posited this: Wouldn’t everyone be better off if we had our kids young and did things like steal from their piggybanks to go party. It’s a good question.
I don’t think I sank into motherhood as gracefully, as without a fight as my friends and acquaintances seemed to do. Those moms on the sidelines who stand there empty-handed. They just stand there and simply watch their children play soccer and go down the slide-- no bag of knitting or novel or banged up notebook for themselves.
I marvel at that. I assume it reflects peace and deep contentment and joy of the mommy role, and I wonder if maybe I should try harder to cultivate some of that. But when those moms aren’t tying junior’s shoe, they talk to each other.
I don’t want to talk. Not about kids, teachers, and Disneyland. Not about anything. If there’s a spare moment that I’m not tying junior’s shoe, I want to do my own thing. Funnily, my own thing, more often than not, is to observe my children.
Right now I’m trying to get a sketch of Franny who is bent over her own drawing of a bouquet. She has one leg folded under, the other out straight in a private and exquisite stretch. She’s talking softly to herself about buttercups and lily of the valley, names of flowers that sound beautiful to her ear.
“I’m going to do a lady’s slipper because there is a flower called a lady slipper,” she says to no one in particular, and I get that down on paper.
There’s a note around here somewhere that has written on it the talk Franny and I had a few nights ago – when I asked her to finish her beans, and she said she couldn’t because they taste like guts. I did get that one down one day too.
However, I miss most of what I want to write down for lack of pen or energy to fetch one, or, increasingly, the motivation to write another messy note that’s going to end up as nothing but more domestic litter.
I try to be inconspicuous, and I’ve been writing about my kids ever since they were born, but they’re on to me now.
“What are you writing, Mummy? What are you writing? I think she’s writing about me.” And they mug for the camera.
But quickly now, illegibly, I jot down the last four things my boy says about artillery and anti-tank guns.
And quickly, before heads roll, I pick up, urge final bites of breakfast on ditherers, finish packing the car and get out the door.
Now, if I don’t even try to have my own time things go better. What works really well is when I prepare everything the night before -- pack the cooler, have hung out the bathing suits and towels the day before, have clothes and breakfast laid out. Have, in short, my act together. But days are long in summer, kids don’t go to bed until after nine. You’re going to take away my morning and my night too?
Hard-done-by mom, is not pleasant to spend the day with. A mom with a mean look on her face, a mom walking around with low-grade depression. Who reaches for brownies as solace and that only makes matters worse.
I really fell off the wagon this summer. When I couldn’t get away for time to myself, when I was exhausted and angry at two in the afternoon, I made coffee and ate brownies. And I packed on the pounds. Like I was going away for a journey, I packed on the pounds.
Not funny. Kind of funny, but not really at all.
So, but I try to get out of the house by eleven at the latest. Sometimes there’s bickering in the car too, or demands and tattletales. After a long day at the lake where they played and ate nice foods, where mom read chapter books, and was generally available, and a child asks in a whiny voice if we’re going to do anything special tonight? It’s enough to drive you into the ditch!
More often though, the car ride can be pleasant enough. Franny takes a little while to settle in, can be chatterbox and annoying, but brother is more tolerant in the car than he is on land.
“Once I had a dream that was just two knock-knock jokes.”
Is that so?
We hear out the jokes and then one of her long dream sequences. Most of her dreams feature exciting adventures with her dad and brother with guest appearances from cousins and grandparents. Me, I die a thousand deaths in her dreams -- falling into holes or run over by daddy’s truck or smashed by rogue rocks, water or planets. Either that or I’m conspicuously, altogether, absent from her dreams.
She explains the deal on that: You’re not in my dreams because you’re not around me very much, because you go on a lot of walks.
When the sun is on its way down, and in a gold summer glow, I see my beautiful children digging tunnels and building dams. Satiated and sleepy, they come when I call, and we head for home. Very carefully, slowly so they don’t notice, I angle the rearview mirror so I can see my two kids. Gazing out windows, quiet, a thumb sucked contemplatively. I angle my mirror back.
They’ll be back in school soon. I already miss them, and of course I regret not savoring our summer enough. My girl is missing her two front teeth, and my boy’s hands are so small when I hold them, so small, really for all I expect of him.
We ride along in silence and then from Franny’s side, a sweet song, slow and wistful, sung in her fancy voice:
A brown thing
That comes out
The back of yooouuuu.
A yellow thing
That comes out
The front of yoooouuuuuu.
She pauses in her sweet melody and revises:
A yellow thing
That comes out
The middle of youuuuu.
At home, I take wet bathing suits from the car, I start dinner, and eventually, gradually, at a sea lion’s pace, I sit in the living room and write it all down.