That Was Then
“Mama?” I stood in the doorway of her dark bedroom. Light from the hall spilled around me and onto the bed where she lay, asleep, still in her skirt, blouse, and pantyhose.
I crossed the room and stood beside the bed. “Mama?” I touched her shoulder. She jerked awake. “Dinner’s ready,” I said.
“Oh.” She blinked in the light from the hall. “It is?” She sat up. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”
She never meant to fall asleep, but as often as not when she came home from work, she needed to lie down for “just a second,” and an hour later, I’d have to wake her for dinner. I didn’t mind. I enjoyed cooking, I got to boss my sister about setting the table, and I could watch Full House reruns while I stirred pasta sauce on the stove. But at eleven, I didn’t get how come she was so tired all the time.
Now that I’m a mom with four young kids of my own, I totally get it. And I am in awe of my mother’s stamina. She taught elementary school every year from the time I was one until I was 31. She worked from eight in the morning till five in the evening, came home, spent a few hours with my sister and me, and then, once we were in bed, sat and graded papers or wrote lesson plans until 10 or 11 p.m. Then, after a half-dozen hours of sleep, she woke up and did it all over again.
Unlike my mother, I work away from my kids only hours each week, not days. And still, I’m exhausted. Still, I feel conflicted.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t love my work. I do. I love writing almost as much as I love my kids. But finding some sort of equilibrium between the two has been a struggle since my oldest was born nine years ago, and with each subsequent child—and each step further down the road of writing—it gets to be more of a challenge.
In past years, I’ve been able to hire a babysitter a few hours a week. But this fall we added Tae Kwon Do and piano lessons to our lives—and our budget—and the babysitter was what we chose to drop in order to give these classes to our kids. Still, I have a book to write, and articles, and blog posts—more work than I can manage in an hour or two after bedtime each night.
This Is Now
So in September, Doug started giving me Saturdays to write. He watches the kids all day, and I go to a nearby coffee shop and work.
The second Friday night of this routine, Doug comes out of Jane’s bedroom, where he’s been tucking her in. “She’s crying,” he says to me. “She wants you.”
From the bedroom I hear a loud wail, then “I—want—Mama!” I set down my laptop and go to her room. I stand in the doorway a moment, letting my eyes adjust to the dark. Light from the hall spills around me and onto the bed where she lies, awake, tears wet on her face. I cross the room and lie down beside her.
“I don’t want you to leave tomorrow.” She sobs into my shoulder. “I don’t like it when you leave.”
I stroke her hair till she falls asleep.
The next morning, she’s up earlier than her brothers. She sits in my lap while we drink tea and eat toast and scrambled eggs. When I leave to walk down to the coffee shop, she puts on her shoes and comes with me, holds my hand all the way to the corner.
“Okay,” I say, “you need to go back now. I’ll watch you till you get to the house.”
She hugs me and grins up at me. “Watch how fast I can run!” Then she turns and dashes up the sidewalk, her little feet slap-slap-slapping the sidewalk, her legs pumping, her long, honey-colored hair swinging from side to side. She’s growing up, every day, her limbs lengthening as surely as her hair grows, and part of me doesn’t want to miss a single moment of it, wants to run right up the sidewalk after her and say, “Hey, let’s go to the park and play!”
At the house, Jane turns and waves. I wave back, and my heart hurts. She disappears behind our hedge, and I stand for a moment, watching the spot where she just stood. I think of my own mother, working five days a week instead of my one. I think of how tired she was, and I wonder if she felt this, too, this ache of knowing she was missing so much, so much.
I turn and walk to the coffee shop, and I wonder if Mama looks back on those years and sees only an exhausted blur of work and homework and housework and children. Or does she remember the times she stood in our driveway, shading her eyes against the setting sun, watching me practice my 400 meter sprints up our quiet street? Does she remember how I looked as I raced away from her, showing her how fast I could run?