Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Satellite of Love

I had a job, once. I showered every day, used the bathroom without interruption, talked to people on the phone without a screaming baby grabbing my leg and asking to talk to “Daddy...DADDAAAY!”
I went to an office. I commuted alone and listened to the radio in my car. Usually, I listened to the news, but sometimes I listened to a rock song or morning chat. I chose whatever station I wanted, and wasn’t shouted at from behind by anyone strapped into a car seat to say that it was, “La-la-loud,’s too la-la-loud.’  
I had an adult schedule. I did my work, attended meetings, went to the bathroom (alone and as often as necessary), went for lunch with “the girls” or did some shopping during my break.
After work, I sometimes met people for drinks. Or I went home for dinner. Or I met my husband at a restaurant and we got a meal. I came and went as I pleased. The only demands placed on me were placed there by my job or me.
I remember Saturday afternoons. We had an apartment near the centre of Dublin, and I used to walk into town: down Leeson Street, through St. Stephen’s Green past the children and jugglers and Spanish exchange students littering the lawns, over the bridge, stopping to admire the ducks, out the gate and onto Grafton Street. Sometimes, I went all the way up to Henry Street. Other times, I went through the Powers Court shopping centre, out the other side, then, nipping in and out of little shops, I made my way over to George’s Street. I browsed, at leisure. I shopped. I remember sometimes meeting female friends for lunch, a mooch through a shop, drinks even. The weekends...gosh, I remember the weekends. Unless there was some reason to wake up early, we didn’t. We just woke up...whenever. Breakfast in bed, and Sunday papers read from cover to cover.
I consider my life before I had kids as “my single life.” I was married, but that’s not what I’m referring to. I mean I was physically single. A sole person. Unique. Just one of me. I was integrated, not disparate. I took walks. I got exercise when I wanted. I spent all my money on me, or on my house, or on my husband. I was not a mommy.
A mommy is intrinsic as opposed to unique (‘unique’ in the original sense of the word). By becoming a mother, I became part of a system: a system of humans who gravitate around each other, held together by the forces of need and love. As the stay-at-home-mommy I am an intrinsic part of this system. I am the orbiting space station which ensures laundry is done, food is prepared, diapers are changed, and people are cared for. I am docked with for hugs and kisses. Sometimes for hair pulling or thumps in the nose.
Moving a system full of dynamic, moving parts that are constantly experiencing the extreme forces of HUNGER and POTTY and HE TOOK MY TOY THAT’S WHY I HIT HIM is, at best, slow. Putting this in the context of my single, unique Lory days: we would not achieve a walk, and shopping, and lunch, and drinks etc., etc. in one afternoon. We would make it as far as the park, and then have to stop for lunch and find a bush for someone to pee in (not me). Shopping is not possible with human systems consisting of the under-fours. The whole gravitational pull thing gets thrown off kilter, warped by the attraction of shiny objects and sweets. The system falls apart. Children fly off in every direction. The mommy must collect them, strap them into buggies or haul them by the arm back to the car or bus.
I’m not complaining. I know the story: don’t wish their lives away; they’ll grow up soon enough. I know they will, and I dread it. Because then what will I do? Wander into town...alone? Shop...alone? Read the papers, cover to cover? Drinks with friends? It sounds fantastic, but I actually dread the freedom, and when I get even thirty minutes of it, I don’t know what to do with myself. All plans for relaxation and fun fly out the window. I anxiously stare at my phone.  It all seems so pointless and boring: the shopping, the sleeping in, the relaxing, when I know little people lie in wait. That being unique business, after having been the very essential part of a human system, seems a million miles away. Like a space station circling the earth. I know I’ll be unique again someday. In the meantime, I’m intrinsic.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How Not To “Do a Doris Lessing”

photo by Elke Wetzig

Doris Lessing (a great writer who left a husband and 2 children and moved to another continent) once said, “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.” It’s difficult, frustrating, tiring and sometimes filled with drudgery - but it isn’t the most boring thing. I bet that it’s WAY more boring to answer the phones at an accountant’s office all day; Or to be the photocopy person at Kinko’s. How about the cleaning lady at a burger joint? The woman who stands by the side of the road selling Wexford strawberries in summer? I could go on and on. There’s nothing wrong with these jobs (I’ve done similar ones myself). They make money and provide a lifeline – hell, these may even be self-employed cleaning ladies or Wexford strawberry sellers and be very satisfied. Nevertheless, doing the side of the road fruit selling shtick can’t be as stimulating as taking care of my two all day. I love Doris Lessing. She was a trailblazer. But being not a dumb woman myself, I’d have to say she just wasn’t looking at the situation in the proper light, with the proper attitude.
I’m endlessly challenged by my kids who, despite the fact that I’m 35+ years older and way more educated, always manage to outwit me. I do wish I had more time to write, read, work, etc. – and I will one day, when the two year old goes to school. There will come a time when I’m not changing diapers or cleaning spilled milk. In the meantime, I snatch what time I can, here and there. I take 20 minutes to type something up while they’re watching Dora (a post-feminist icon if ever there was one: roaming the jungles with only a monkey, a backpack and a map, yet wearing pink clothes and a delicate little pearl bracelet). I get a little bit of time between 8 and 10 in the evenings a couple of nights a week. It isn’t much but it’s what I’ve got. Love for the boys gets me through the rest. I hang on, clinging to the knowledge that the pre-school years aren’t forever, and that they have a lot to offer me and teach me. For example: Patience (I have a lot to learn); Courage (like the time I had to walk through murky, crab-filled water on the beach in order to rescue Max from a rock – not much, but it’s all I got); Cunning cookery (hide the healthy bits); Time Management and Negotiation skills (Starting about 30 minutes before I actually have to leave:
“Zach, use the potty and wash your hands, we’ve got to go.”
“But Mom, I’m watching this.”
“Use it, we have to go.”
“When this is over.”
“Now. We have to go. Please go up, use the potty and wash your hands.”
“But Mom...”
“I’m shutting it off.”
“Off, it’s going OFF!”
“Mom...Can I use the potty down here while I watch?”
“No, you’ll stink up the place.”
Big sigh, “Oh...OK...but then I’m shutting it off!”)
I’ve learned stuff I never wanted to learn, too – like how to get stains out.
Doris feared she’d end up a frustrated intellectual and alcoholic. I’m Lucky. I was born about 50 years later than Doris. I know, however, that I benefit now from technology, which allows for flexible working (think: laptop on the go, broadband and email). She and her generation ploughed the furrows, planted the seeds. I’m reaping the benefits the feminists gave us, and I know it.  The post-feminist, angst ridden mother in me wishes she’d been born a decade or two earlier. She pines for the days when feminists were feminists, when ladies with curly haired coifs wore polyester pant suits, ERA buttons pinned tightly to their lapels. She would have stood around an oil drum with her ‘sisters’, casually thrown her brazier atop the pile of lace and elastic, doused it with oil and lit a match. We’ve moved past the bra burnings and now gather in groups only when there’s a Gymboree session down at the local community centre, or when we’re in desperate need of a cappuccino. I can sense men’s fear when there’s too much oestrogen in one place. I can’t blame them. If only we weren’t all so damned sleep deprived, we’d start a revolution.  
Women think they’ve arrived when they haven’t; that the option between work and childrearing is what we fought for. That’s only half the battle. What we need is to combine the two in a way that is realistic. Women need a more fluid situation in the work world, which allows for children getting chicken pox and sleep deprived nights that turn into sleep deprived days. We need heavily subsidized childcare, to free up women in lower income bands to exercise their intellect as well. Doris thought that a woman who wouldn’t tell men what they thought to their face “deserves everything she gets.” I have no fear of telling everyone what I think. Doris, if only you had your own blog, something you could run upstairs and type during nap time, maybe you would have had the release valve I have, and wouldn’t have had to cut and run.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Lesson 1: Exit from Eden

I think it was John McGahern in his book Memoir who likened starting school to an exit from Eden. Starting school heralds the end of freedom from worry and responsibility, the end of innocence, and is the beginning of the really tough part of the human journey that ends in adulthood. My firstborn started school last Monday. We’d been looking forward to it, though we knew Zach would get emotional. He’s a smart and sensitive child. The surprise, to me, was that I got emotional about it, too. Standing in the classroom on the first day, surrounded by parents and their tiny little offspring all decked out in brand new school uniforms, I started tearing up. Zach was sitting in his little chair, at a little table, trying hard not to cry as he played with some building blocks. He was strong enough to hold it in (for a while anyway). I wasn’t. I turned to face the wall so he wouldn’t see me, pulling my sunglasses down off the top of my head (their perpetual resting place, summer and winter) and shielded my eyes. Mothers and grandmothers smiled at me. Why weren’t they crying, too? It was the end, couldn’t they see it? The paradise of the first few years these children spent at home was OVER. The next 13 years would be dictated by the schedule, pace and demands of the school system.

Our kids will slowly learn the ways of institutionalisation or they will rebel against it. Either approach has its pitfalls. This day was day one of this long, horrid trip into the unknown. I cried, perhaps, because I knew that Zach would have to make his way. Only Zach can learn. Only Zach can draw the pictures, answer the questions, play on the sports field. He has to do it on his own, and I can only stand back, offering encouragement, support—but I can’t do it for him. I can’t be his hands or his brains or his will. He has to do that himself. My Zach. My his own Zach. So, that was my first lesson on Zach’s first day of school.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

That's Entertainment

Ah, the Irish activity centre; you know them. I’d say they have these all over the developed world: soft play areas where kids can throw themselves into pools filled with plastic balls and climb frames swaddled in cushioning. Mothers sit on hard chairs sipping coffee, hoping their kids don’t suffocate under a pile of pre-schoolers scrambling for access to the slide. They cost money, these things. But they’re worth every penny, because your kids come out of them exhausted--you know you’re getting them into bed early that night.

My friend and I took our kids to one nearby this past Saturday. It was crawling with gangs of kids attending birthday parties. My friend and I kept doing headcounts on our children. Max, my two year old, being the boy that he is, took all his clothes off, including his diaper, and made a run for it. I had to wrestle him to the floor and strap the diaper back on. There was no way I could get the jeans back up. The T-shirt stayed put, but only after a lot of crying (“peeeeese, mami, peeeeeeeese”) and pulling at the collar (“off, mami, O-O-O-OFF!!”). Distraction was employed (don’t know how I did it, maybe chocolate?) and off he went finally to play – defying the dress code in only a t-shirt and a diaper.

Keeping the diaper on was a service to other visitors. These places are large Petri dishes, incubating all manner of disease. At one point, I followed my boys into the bowels of the multi-level, soft play monster. Crawling up a level, I was suddenly surrounded by toddlers clambering for the slide. All I could smell was urine and faeces, the scent of old diaper and Caldesene powder. People were drooling everywhere. After I escaped, I told my friend about the experience. She’d actually been in another place, and the ball pit had had a couple of centimetres of liquid in it – human urine from countless children. Her kids’ socks got soaked in it. I recoiled, gagging.

You’re thinking: that’s gross, Lory, why would you let your kids roll in this filth? The answer is: entertainment, exercise, keeping them occupied. When you’re at home with them all the time, planning activities becomes very important. They need field trips. I need field trips. If we stay home every single day, we’re all coming out of here in strait jackets. They’re at the age where they can self entertain for only so long before someone gets hit over the head with a rocket ship. Outside is good, but ever since Zach learned to turn the hose on and off, it’s become MESSY. You send them out, and they come back in like they’ve been camping in Glastonbury for a concert weekend. And the sand box! Why the hell did I think it was a good idea to buy a sand box? Tactile stimulation, learning, something, something, blah, blah. All I know is that I’ve got the flippin’ vacuum cleaner out twice a day hoovering up after their excursions into the garden. So, outings on occasion are important. And not just to the grocery store.

On the way out of the play centre, I made everyone wash their hands, and face, twice. I then smothered them in anti-bacterial wash. My little piglets slept well that night.

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