Reflections of a Kindergarten Mother
I didn't think I ever wanted kids. Now Raffi is my favorite musician and I can't picture my life without a small child on my lap. I warned my husband-to-be that I didn't see motherhood in my future and ended up talking him into a third child. We didn't take Luke's crib down until his third birthday. Patrick unscrewed each screw of the crib slowly, reluctantly, it seemed to me--and collected the little metal pieces in his pocket. It was hitting him that this was our last baby.
Well, it's hitting me now. Luke is starting kindergarten this fall. No little boy sucking his thumb on my lap as the older kids go off to school. No more mornings stirring soup while he lies on the kitchen floor playing with his toy animals. I don't want this stage to be over.
I've been bracing myself for this transition since last spring, when Luke had only a few weeks of nursery school left. One afternoon we took our familiar walk home together from his childcare center on the St. Catherine's college campus. We had watched the huge oaks and maples on the hill change from the green of late summer to the crimson of autumn. There was something generous and brave about the leaves, I thought, holding nothing back before they fell to the ground.
Winter yielded to spring. We crouched to see the first purple crocuses break through the garden along the side of the old vine-covered stone buildings. Luke leapt and bounced toward home, turning fallen branches into moose antlers, or soldier's swords. One afternoon he picked up a long willow branch and swirled it in wild circles. Whoosh, whoosh, the air broke into glittering confetti around his head.
"It's sad that you are finishing nursery school, isn't it?" I said as we continued walking. He had only three weeks left.
"No, it isn't sad at all," he said, balancing on the curb of the driveway that goes down by the pond. "Nursery school is boring. In kindergarten you learn to read." His arms stretched out on each side, a bird about to take off.
When school starts in the fall, I walk with the kids. I say I am concerned about Luke crossing the big streets, but the fact is, I can't bear the idea of all three children trooping out the front door together, leaving me. There has always been a part of me that yearned for more time alone. Now that I have it, I don't know what to do with myself.
The "what next?" question scares me. My days have been structured around caring for these children. My life may collapse on itself now without that sense of purpose. Do I even exist apart from my children? Can I reconnect with the me that is not a mother? Or have I lost her in the commotion of raising a family? I am afraid that I will feel isolated. I will be lonely. I will get depressed. I won't know what to do. I won't know how to find out. I won't be good at anything. I will have nothing to offer. I will be useless, with no sense of purpose, a blob.
Staying home to raise your children has not been a highly valued choice in our society in recent years. In the back of my head lurks the question that reappears when I feel insecure--was this a valid use of my time? I can even feel guilty that I have had the luxury of being able to stay at home and don't have to immediately start earning a paycheck.
It is not only the loss of my children that is hard. It is also the fear that I will not be able to find myself.
The first two weeks of kindergarten are hot. Luke and I have the same routine every day. I meet him at school after lunch and we walk home together. Every few blocks on Cleveland Avenue, we rest in the shade of a tree or at a bus-stop bench and swig from the water bottle I brought. At home Luke shrugs off his red knapsack and changes out of his school uniform into cotton shorts and a T-shirt. We drink glasses of cold water standing by the kitchen sink. Then we go back outside to the hammock under the white oak tree.
We lie there in the shade, my usually uncontainable son limp from a morning of kindergarten. Occasionally a late summer bee buzzes by. I stare up at the green leaves suffused with afternoon sun. The hammock holds us suspended in time and space. Its rope mesh returns us to an ancient comfort. I could stay here forever, I think to myself. The slightest movement of air delights me. So does this closeness with my child. At times, though, Luke's head weighs down on my shoulder, pressing into the bone. His elbow pokes me in the stomach as he changes position. I imagine the pleasures of stretching out alone in the hammock.
When Daniel, our first child, was about two, I realized that I needed time alone on a regular basis. I began a regular writing practice. One winter afternoon when we still lived in Connecticut and all three kids were under six, Grace, my aptly named baby sitter, arrived at our house at four o'clock for her daily hour of duty so I could get out of the house to write. By that time I couldn't stand another minute of small children or the confining walls of my small world with them. I backed the car out of the driveway and drove down the street with a giddy sense of freedom. At the intersection of Cadwell and Woodland, the hills of Talcott Ridge edged the distant horizon in purple. I took a deep breath. Yes, there was a bigger world out there. I got out of the car at Petersons', the local café where I always went to write, and stood still for a minute breathing the clearness of the cold air into my lungs. The world was gold as the sun dropped behind the library. I wondered, "Will I ever be this exquisitely happy again, having time to myself, as I am at this moment--looking forward to a whole hour of being alone, writing?"
Writing was my escape. Moments that had seemed at the time only inconveniences or interruptions often glimmered with grace as I scribbled them down in my notebook. I'd look up at the clock and be surprised that an hour had gone by. I could have always written longer.
What if, now that I do have time to myself, there is no longer the pull toward writing? Maybe it was a convenience whose purpose is finished, like a friend you'd made when your children went to the same nursery school. Now you wave at them from your car but never get together anymore.
What will I do with myself ? I am haunted by self-doubt these days. Shapeless fears float through me as I put the milk and the butter back in the refrigerator, load the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher, and wipe peanut butter and jelly off the kitchen counters. I don't put my feelings into actual words because they sound silly to my rational self. It is embarrassing to be so primitive about it all. How can I admit to the cheerful women who ask if I'm delighted to have more time to myself that in fact I am grief-stricken and gripped with fear about my future?
I carry a laundry basket of dirty clothes down the stairs to the basement, and in my mind's eye I see an old lady sitting in a chair by her apartment window. She is looking out, hoping for a visitor. No one comes. I am afraid to look at the emptiness in her eyes and so I inspect the clothes as I put a dark load into the washer. Daniel has cleaned his room by throwing the clean jeans and sweatshirts I folded yesterday down the clothes chute rather than putting them back into his drawers. I fume at him. When I look up, the old lady has turned her head away, but I see her jaw trembling. I shudder. I taste her fear.
"That's an awfully negative image," an older friend of mine says. "It captures how I feel," I tell her. My youngest child has started kindergarten and I am terrified of being abandoned, of being an isolated, loveless old lady. "That is fear of something far off," I say to myself. What I am really afraid of is putting my foot out to take the next step into my life.
"Mom, I'm scared," Luke calls from the top of the stairs. It is 8:30 at night. Patrick put him to bed an hour ago.
When each of our children first learned to pull themselves up to standing in their crib, they would immediately scream for me to comfort them and help them get down. It fascinated me that, as panicked as they were, as soon as they were flat on their mattresses, all they did was try to get up again. In the middle of the night, I'd wake to their screaming and I would come into their room to find them standing, crazily clutching the end of the crib.
It was the same when they began to walk. There was the irresistible urge to step, sometimes lurch, forward, followed by a moment of panic. Homo erectus, a new being, wobbly but vibrating with a sense of accomplishment at being able to navigate the world from an upright position. Thrill and terror coexist: Now he can run toward mommy, or away from her.
Luke calls out again, "I'm scared."
My dad used to come upstairs and lie down next to me when I was scared. He'd stay until I was able to fall asleep. I set my book down on the sofa where I have been reading and climb the stairs to lie down next to my scared five-year-old.
"It's my turn to hold Cappuccino now," Daniel says, grabbing the leash from Cassie.
It is a gray morning and the kids squabble on the way to school. We have taken Cappy, our chocolate lab, with us. It was my idea, a way to help make the walk to school fun, but it is backfiring.
"No, it's not! You got two blocks and I only got one and a half," Cassie, the middle child, practiced in verbal self-defense, parries.
On the next block, her voice stretches my name into two syllables, "Mo-om, Daniel said 'shut up' to me."
"I did not," he snaps. Back and forth they go, almost shouting as we walk along Cleveland Avenue. Luke scurries behind them, his red backpack swaying right and left as he yells, "Stop fighting!" The windows in the brick apartment buildings we are passing are open. "Quiet, you guys," I call from further back in an ineffectual stage whisper, "you're going to wake people up."
At Hartford Avenue Daniel raises his fist, ready to slug Cassie. I grab his arm. "If I hear one more word from either of you, you will both be in for the afternoon when you get home."
I kiss them good-bye at school. I wonder what am I doing wrong to have such snarly kids. I am relieved to have them gone for a few hours. Yet I felt their loss, as when something you have gotten so used to that you think it is a part of you is suddenly missing.
Cappy and I turn and retrace our way to Ford Parkway and turn left down toward the Mississippi. Past the still-closed eyeglasses shop on the corner, the jewelers, the new shopping center across the street, the Ford plant, the liquor store, the Middle Eastern restaurant. You can get to the river a prettier way by going down one of the side streets, but if you walk around the ravine just before the synagogue you get an expansive view, as though you are standing at the foot of the river. I usually want to fling my arms open wide when I see it, but this morning's gray matches my own heavy mood, and I don't. I walk along, hounded by the questions that are weighing me down these days. "What is the point of my life now? Who am I? What will I do with myself?" Cappy trots beside me. A breeze picks up and leaves rustle in the trees. The breeze ruffles my hair, and in the far reaches of my imagination, hope begins to stir. The sun slowly burns through the morning's gray. The world is a work of art, the sumacs and oaks painted ocher and vermilion, in the palette of fall. I go home and sit down at the computer.
By mid-October I am letting the kids walk to school by themselves, older responsible for younger. They get smaller as they stride briskly down the street, three red backpacks bouncing against three navy-blue uniform sweatshirts. I wonder, "How can a phase of life that was so rich be over so quickly, so unceremoniously?"
There is that fleetingness of things. That delighting and forgetting, and that forgetting to enjoy until the time has passed, vanished. The babies walk, learn to write their own names, know things I don't know. They show me how to use the computer. They look back over their shoulders with a quick good-bye and then are gone into their own lives.
And here I am in mine. A shock of grief rushes through me. I am not ready for this. I have often chafed against the constraints of having small children at home. I have resented the constancy of their needs. Yet now I want to call to them, "Come on back! Don't go. Let's all sit on the sofa and read stories together."
I am like Luke when he started preschool. He clung to me as soon as I turned to leave, and began to sob (I couldn't admit then that there was something reassuring to me in his dependency). Marti, his teacher, would calmly take him from my arms and assure me, "He's always fine right after you go."
He was fine. And I will be fine, too. I just need to leap into someone's arms for a good cry first.
One sunny morning all three of them are fighting. They jockey for position at the kitchen counter, making their lunches. "I'm not done with the peanut butter," Luke screams when Cassie grabs it from him. "Move," Cass shouts at Daniel when he won't budge to let her open the drawer where the brown bags are. He plants his feet firmly. She shoves him out of the way and he shrieks.
Their going may be hard on me, but their staying would be worse.
I clean the house like crazy. I even put the special attachment on the vacuum cleaner and lie on the floor to get inside the coils of the radiators. I attack closets. I put away summer clothes and make piles of cold-weather clothes, seeing who will fit into what, who needs new sweatshirts, snow pants. When Pat and I get back from a trip, I am secretly relieved at how dirty the twenty-year-old baby sitter has let the house get. Every dog-haired dust ball and each new report of fast-food meals is another sign to me that I am still needed, that my job as a homemaker is not redundant. I cling to the concrete satisfactions of cleaning with the tenacity of a toddler clutching her blankie.
While one part of my mind is busy going through drawers, the linen closet, piles of papers, organizing what needs to be kept, and throwing out what is no longer needed, another part sinks deeper and does the same cleaning and reorganizing in my inner world. There is a contemplative rhythm underneath my bending, scrubbing, clearing out, dumping, rearranging, and polishing as I get my house in order.
I feel inadequate and stupid because I don't know what I want "to do with myself." That internist in the lime-green dress at a recent party stared at me when I said it has been a big transition for me with my youngest starting kindergarten. When hers did last year, she said, "It wasn't any different for me. We've had someone come in to take care of the children all along, so nothing in my life really changed."
Should I have followed a career and spared myself the awkwardness of this identity crisis? Everyone else seems to know what they want to do with their lives by my age. Why don't I? These thoughts wander through me miserably.
Luke and I were walking home from school a few weeks into kindergarten. He turned to me just after we passed Cecil's deli, and said, "I feel stupid at school."
We stopped on the sidewalk. His head hung so low that I had to bend down to hear him. "I don't know how to write my letters and all the other kids do," his voice cracked out in a terrible whisper. I picked him up and hugged him . "I know that feeling," I said.
I consult Luke's kindergarten teacher. "Lots of kids feel that way. I wouldn't worry a bit," she says. "Everyone gets there in their own time."
I went to the kitchen store last week to buy a knife sharpener. The man with the thinning gray hair and the small gold ring in his ear helped me.
"Have you seen these pour spouts?" he asked when he saw me browsing.
"I love them because you can keep your oil right on the kitchen counter and just," he held out his arm in a swooping motion, " pour it into your pan whenever you need it."
I buy two, and two light-green glass bottles--how could I resist after talking with someone who understood the beauty of olive oil spreading its clear shine across a black skillet? Homemaking is not a high-status profession, and I appreciate anyone who helps me see what I do as an art form. The man wraps each of the bottles, and my knife sharpener, in tissue paper and puts them in a bag for me.
"Why did you want a knife sharpener?" Patrick asked curiously that evening when I showed him.
"I am tired of dull edges," I say to him emphatically. I am almost yelling.
"I want to be able to cut through things with sharp edges, clean lines."
One late afternoon as I am peeling potatoes for dinner, I hear the geese. I wipe my hands on my apron and hurry out to the back porch. In the sixth grade, Sister Ambrose, an old nun with skin as creviced as oak bark, told us stories. When she was a girl on a farm in Massachusetts, she stood outside in fall and looked up as the geese flew south every year. There were so many of them that the sky turned dark as they passed overhead. Every fall since then, I get a jump of excitement when I hear the geese honking, even though I know it means winter is coming.
I look up now. The sky is a clear, autumnal blue, the top of the maple in my neighbor's yard already ablaze with color. The geese are in formation, necks stretching forward on their journey. Their wings have a gold cast in the late afternoon sun. I stay on the back step looking up until I can no longer hear them. Their flying away to places I can't imagine excites me.
I have been thinking of my children flying away from me. Now I realize that it is time for me to fly, too.
The Thursday evening before we turned the clocks back, Patrick bursts into the house at the end of the day. He comes over to kiss me at the stove where I am sautéing onions to add to my black bean soup.
"I had a great day," he says, taking a bite of the soup. "I revised four research papers on diabetes management and sent them out this afternoon."
I am speechless. I stand there thinking about my day: Just when I'd started to cook, I'd heard the kind of yell you know you have to investigate. I'd turned off the stove, run outside. Luke had gotten whacked on the forehead with an off-season hockey stick. After I'd tended to him, I remembered that it was almost time for dance class and Cassie hadn't done her spelling yet. I chased around the neighborhood rounding her up. While she wrote down her words, Daniel wanted me to hear him sing along with a latest hit. I listened to him while I chopped onions, and then made him do his social studies homework. That morning I had spent a couple of hours doing laundry and cleaning. I had spent one hour writing.
As Patrick speaks to me, I feel--I don't even know quite what--frustrated, inadequate, jealous? I'm not sure, but at that moment, I want to sock him.
This might be a sign that I need more in my life.
I pray out loud as I scrub dried pancake batter off the kitchen counters one morning in November. This talking out loud is one of the freedoms I am beginning to realize I can enjoy after everyone's left for school. "Please help me know what I am meant to do," I pray. "I am lost and floundering. I was doing what I wanted staying home with the kids. What do I do now? Maybe I shouldn't need this, but could you please give me some sort of sign?"
I decide not to sweep the kitchen floor or straighten up the living room. I will write instead. I make myself a pot of tea and spread my books and papers over the kitchen table, where I like to sit when I write freehand, and get started.
How do I figure out what God has in mind for me? I wonder. Elisha waited in his cave for the grand pronouncement from God, the thunder-and-lightning proclamation of God's will. He was not prepared when God appeared in the quiet whisper of a breeze. I am beginning to realize that God works more in my life like a low-budget foreign film than a major Hollywood production, more often appearing in the subtleties of my feelings and experiences than in the great whack on the head or in trumpet fanfare. Where better for me to look for signs of what I am meant to do than in what I love doing, in the quiet urges in me toward what stirs and enchants me or disturbs me? In what engages me and forces me to grow--what I enjoy so much that I don't realize where the time goes when I do it?
Writing is that for me. "But what will I say, what will I write about?" I wonder as I scribble down my thoughts.
"It is an unsecular practice," Toni Morrison says of writing. "We are waiting for the word." I copy those lines down from a book I am reading, and then write my own words: "I will wait. I will write and wait." I have no idea what the outcome will be, almost immediately doubt that I have anything worthwhile to say, and yet know it is the right thing for me to do. I feel some of the same sense of having made a serious commitment as I felt the day I got married.
The next morning I find myself parked in front of the closed garage doors of the auto-emissions inspection station realizing I should have checked their schedule before driving over. I decide to wait the half-hour until they open. I take my notebook out, leaning it uncomfortably on the steering wheel and then, twisting awkwardly, on my lap, to write.
As my pen makes its marks on my paper, four snazzy old ladies from New York show up on the page. They remind me of my grandmother's old friend Aunt Vi--sophisticated, aging, going strong, beautiful. I am in the living room of their elegant New York City apartment, on the Upper East Side, its coffee table cluttered with books, open newspapers and the detritus of interesting lives in action. I have been explaining to them that I believe my presence at home is still valuable for my family.
"But what happens when my children all grow up and don't need me anymore?" I moan. I want to develop my writing, but part of me suspects that to pursue my own agenda means to neglect my role as mother. I wonder how to navigate the confluence of waters where mother and writer meet. How much can I give to writing? How much to motherhood? "I'll be left in the lurch, having given them my availability all these years." I am almost frenetic as I present my dilemma from different angles.
"Okay, doll, okay," they assure me with the confidence of women who have trusted their intuition. There is something worldly and experienced about them that I like, and I like their New York accents, their generous slang.
"It's an occupational hazard, but it don't deny the woith of the job," one of them says in a lowbrow New York accent, which surprises me. "Put on some lipstick and fix yourself a drink," they tell me, all in agreement that I am far too serious and need them to help me lighten up.
A few days later, I tried to conjure them up again to ask their advice. They ignored me pleasantly. But I heard them talking. One of them asked, referring to me, "What did she say?" Another answered, "Oh, don't worry about her. She knows perfectly well what she is doing."
It is December now, and what I am doing is writing more, and cleaning less. I often put lipstick on before I write, my own little ceremony to mark my switching roles from homemaker to writer. "I am a writer," I announce to the house, practicing saying the words as I walk to my Macintosh on the old table with the green legs at the top of the stairs.
One night I dream I am standing on the side of a lake, some feet up above its beautiful green water. "It is not safe to jump into unknown waters," I tell the two healthy young men who stand next to me, encouraging me to jump in. I look into the deep waters, both afraid and attracted by its loveliness.
"Here, we'll show you," they say and I watch as they leap, their bodies arcing gracefully as they disappear into the lake's water.
Around that time, I know that I am ready to take the risk. I send out a manuscript.
I am bearing with the shudders of resistance that a family has when anyone does anything that's new. We have an elaborate chore list posted on the refrigerator. Cassie and Daniel are responsible for three loads of laundry between them, as well as dinner dishes and tidying the living room. Luke probably doesn't have enough with only setting the table and emptying the garbage. Everyone is mad at being expected to share more of the load of housekeeping, and the breakfast dishes often don't get done until afternoon. We are a macrocosm of the baby pulling itself to stand, a microcosm of the world trying to renew itself.
One cold morning this month, I stand on the front steps putting my key into the lock to get back into the house after doing an errand. I see a face reflected in the window of the front door. The contours of the face are clearly outlined--sharp, clean lines. I smile at my reflection and run upstairs to write.
I write about my conflicts, about wanting to be an emotionally available mother and have a life of my own, about the way Luke's backpack bounces as he walks. I write about how I can feel like a failure when the kids fight and Luke has a temper tantrum when I tell him it's time to set the table for dinner. I write about the crows cawing from the bare branches of the trees along the river, and the way garlic smells when you throw it into hot oil.
I write with one ear out for Luke so that when he gets dropped off by a friend after kindergarten I can run downstairs, kick the boots out of the way, and fling open the door to let him in.
Kerin McTeigue O'Connor is a mother and writer living in St. Paul. She has had her work published in The Christian Science Monitor and Mother Voices, an anthology of women's writings on motherhood, as well as in many smaller local publications.
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