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Get Real by Abby Arnold

An ongoing series of unflinching commentary

June 2004

All of it

We 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.

By five o’clock that afternoon I hated them all.

My three 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.

Needless 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.

After what 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.

I mention 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.

More importantly 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.

Our beach 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.

Vacations 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.

Happy summer vacation to you all.

: mmo :

Get Real is an ongoing series of original essays and commentary by Abby Arnold. She is a teacher, writer and the mother of a 4 year old son and 2 year old daughter. She lives with her family in North Carolina.

Feel like getting real? Send your comments to Abby Arnold at getreal@mothersmovement.org

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