took our kids to the beach a few weeks ago for our summer vacation. Our first day there, I had the happiest moment of my mother-life:
being with my kids as they saw the ocean for the first time in their
memory, their ecstatic splashing in the waves, the eager abandon
as they flopped their bodies on the sand, their strength as they
tugged on my hands to move faster, see more, embrace it all. The
beach is my favorite place in the world, so their delirious joy
with it sent my heart on an equally intense rocket ride. I’ve
never felt so completely at one with being a mother as I did on
that morning, when my love for a place and my love for my children
came together with such easy happiness.
o’clock that afternoon I hated them all.
year old son, Jack, hadn’t napped. My nineteen month daughter
Morgan had napped for about 25 seconds. Their crankiness was exactly
proportional to their earlier ecstasy. Then, it turned out that
the chlorine level in the condo pool was out of whack; that afternoon,
Morgan’s eyes turned so swollen and red from the water that
we had to call Poison Control, then spent 15 minutes flushing her
eyes out with running water while she screamed. In the middle of
that scene Jack came into the bathroom to hand me the apple he’d
just finished and demand a cracker “right now.” When
I yelled at him to get out, he burst into tears, equaling his sister
in sound, if not terror. My husband yelled at me for yelling at
Jack, while Morgan clung to me, soaking wet, sniffling and shuddering
as she readjusted to life after terror and I felt that I could never
move again from the weight of guilt.
to say, they were too tired to eat dinner, but retained enough energy
to smear spaghetti sauce all over the (rental unit with security
deposit) seat cushions. The condo itself included bunk beds so later
Morgan taught herself how to climb up them, just after she learned
how to climb out of the Port-a-Crib. My husband had a sunburn and
wouldn’t stop whining about it. I longed to leave, become
a drug addict, take on an 80-hour a week job, abandon them to their
own fates, anything to get away from them for (almost) forever.
seemed like three days later, the kids passed out at 7:00 and slept
for 12 hours. I took a long, solitary walk on the beach and regained
my equilibrium. By the time I came back to the condo my husband
had cleaned up the mess; he made me a hefty gin and tonic and left
me alone to read a book. Before I went to bed I watched the kids
sleeping with the same fierce energy they’d lived through
the day, and again felt that delirious, heart stopping devotion
that seems to come like a shot of vitamin B-12 just when the stress
is about to drown me. I thought about my friend saying that a vacation
with small children isn’t a vacation, it’s a change
of scenery. Then I went to bed, the ocean waves rocking in and out
of my dreams all night long, and thus (without another Poison Control
incident) became the tempo of our vacation.
this in such detail because 1) I’m hoping I’m not alone
in the alternating bliss/nightmare that is a family vacation with
little kids and 2)I’ve been thinking about that stupid phrase
so often applied to mothers “you can have it all,” and
it’s corollary “you can have it all, just not all at
once.” What bullshit these saying are. I’m not the first
person to say how inappropriate they are to women’s lives,
how the unachievable expectations of “having everything”
are never applied to men, how they set us up for standards of perfection
that can never be met and how they are used by different parenting
camps to coerce mothers into making certain choices about how to
live their lives.
to me, this expectation of ‘everything’ wipes out the
reality of parenting that I experienced so fully on that first day
on the beach: joy, chaos, and all the other frequently overwhelming
states of emotion and physicality that are unimaginable to the uninitiated.
That is, rather than the fantasy of easy fulfillment that the slogans
suggest, mothering is an inherently adult activity, rich, complex,
contradictory. I read a Tom Hanks interview somewhere once where
he said something about as he grew older he wanted to take on more
roles that acknowledged the “bitter compromise” we all
must make as we live out our adult lives. I think about that phrase
a lot, as I live out the clash of devotion and frustration that
permeates my mothering life, even while on vacation.
vacation was a great place for me to see all the principles of my
mothering, the expectations and the reality, come together. I’ve
been going to the beach my entire life: as child, dependent as my
children are now; as teenager, sunning myself with baby oil and
praying the cute lifeguards would notice me; as adult in my twenties
and early thirties, spending the entire day on the beach, swimming,
reading, playing at my will; and now as mother, caring for others,
introducing them to pleasure, making space for my own desires through
negotiation and planning. In many ways, I measure my life during
my time at the beach and this vacation was no exception.
I will never
have it all. To be honest, I don’t even know what that would
look like or how one could possibly make it last. For me, mothering
is too full of real life to fit into such neatly defined and sterile
packaging. Even on vacation.
set themselves up as places of Hallmark images and “magic
moments.” In my reality, they are way too much like everyday
life and like everyday life, the only way through them is moment
by moment, savoring the sweetness and breathing through the mess.
vacation to you all.
: mmo :