All time all the time

Time has gone funny. In a way, I have no time; meaning I rarely do what I want to do, mean to do, or need to do. In another way, time is all there is.

I function on a system of clicks, timers, and alarms. Our schedule is loose, but the order of operations is tight. 5 AM, the twins start us off with a dawn chorus. Nurse. Diaper change. By 6 AM we are all awake. Avery calls from her room, Coo-ee! Mama! Wake me up! I go in for a cuddle. Breakfast, then Avery and I draw at the table with Toren trapped in his highchair. Otherwise he climbs and there is no peace.

At 8 AM, I verbally check off Avery’s list (Dressed? Check. Socks? Check. Teeth brushed? Check. Homework? Check. Bag packed? Check. Warmies ready? Check.) and plug her in. Nurse and diaper change again. At 8:35 the shoes-on alarm goes off. Grab Avery’s snack and waterbottle. Change whoever pooped. Remember what I forgot. Alarm goes off again. Shoes on. We are out the door.

I think a lot about the culmination of a life; which means I am always rushing. The people who walk regularly at 9 AM think I am a maniac driver; and I am.

Time comes in three basic types: bronze, silver, and gold. In bronze minutes my lap is on non-stop rotation. I sling pancakes and kiss away tears. Prioritize, execute, repeat. The dog will be fed later. Silver minutes are those when the kids are copacetic. No one is injuring one another. As long as I don’t remind them of my presence I can wash dishes and boil noodles. Gold minutes are the rare, jeweled beasts that come around when everyone is asleep or at school. Everything gets quiet. I can can pour a ceramic mug of hot tea and leave it unprotected and without a lid. It doesn’t spill or break, and no one gets burned. These minutes are pure wonder.

People ask how I find time to write but I don’t find it; I create it. I cultivate creativity and adventure for our family through some serious temporal upscaling. I invite playmates over so Avery uses her imagination instead of kicking the couch. When kids start to spin out, you will hear my battle-cry: Get in the car! Hop on your bike! Anywhere but here! I do my best to turn bronze minutes silver and silver minutes gold. I am always working this alchemy.

Gold time is never enough to do all the things. One must choose. Life with kids is crazy making and rest is necessary. As one mom put it: “Sometimes when I get a minute, I just want to sit down.” But if you want to accomplish anything then this is when the real ass-kicking needs to begin.

Make time for yourself in the same way you would make time for your new boyfriend. Drive across town on your lunch hour to make-out in a stairwell for fifteen minutes. Do it because you want to.

I waste precious little gold time; even in that moment before writing when emotions start to bubble and the dishes look pretty enticing. I eat all of the cookies, but at least they are finite. Remembering how precious these minutes are is usually enough to get me started. For example, today is Wednesday. My husband arrives home tomorrow afternoon, and school is canceled on Friday. So the next 90 minutes is the only time I will get until next week. Sit. Down.

Is writing work or play? It is both. It is desire over duty and the ego enlisted to do the work of the heart. A little writing time ensures that I am happy more often than I am grumpy; also that my kids will know me, have family stories, and learn that even as adults they may take time for themselves.

Looking around the house, most people would have no choice but to clean. But do this math: If I spend two gold hours cleaning, and the kids trash the house within five minutes of reentering, what was gained? The house is no cleaner, I am not rested, and I am mad about the shape we are in.

I joke with myself about “Heidi’s time-saving tips”. Like cleaning always happens in the presence of children, and I skip chores that don’t make sense. For example, I don’t fold laundry. Who cares if we look like a big wrinkle? I wore jeans to a school drop-off once last year and another mom commented. “Props, dude,” she said. “I haven’t worn jeans since I left Dallas.”

Gold minutes are my time. I claim very little for myself these days; not my body, not my food, not my bathroom, not my sleep. Weekday hours from ten until noon are as close to sacred as I get.

Time is nothing; it is all around us. But mess with my time and there will be hell to pay. I teach Avery to be very careful around the word my. “That little word starts a lot of fights,” I tell her. Whenever possible we skip my in favor of the simple article the. There’s no need to get excited about the cup, the game, the stuffy. But my cup; my game; my stuffy. That is another matter.

My poor husband, M, works out of town; so he is either very much gone or very much here. He thinks gold minutes are an opportunity for couple time, or to talk about bills, or to address the pile of broken toys behind the fruit bowl.

My can be a selfish and entitled word or it can reflect a healthy sense of self-worth. M doesn’t understand my obsession with time but he feels this way about food. According to him, food must be hot, delicious, and well-plated. It may not be touched and made weird by children. He definitely doesn’t eat their scraps.

Everyone is entitled to a my now and again. Forget the guilt, and claim whatever gold minutes you can for yourself. Clear two-square-feet of peace and do whatever makes your heart sing.

I function well within the structures I have created. But my lack of flexibility (it’s real) makes including other adults in our day difficult. Even my husband struggles to figure out where he fits.

Before I had kids, I wanted to be a helpful auntie. In the one morning that I was with my sister’s family, I served my nephew’s oatmeal. I took the bowl from my sister, placed it on a wobbly high-chair table, and watched in horror as the whole tray crashed to the floor. I wiped it up while my sister made more oatmeal.

How can a passing adult help a busy parent? It’s never easy to jump in and do the things mom usually does. My lists of “daily chores” and “weekend chores” are generally covered but there is room for improvement in other areas. Can someone convince Avery to clean-up after herself? Help the brothers fall back asleep at 4:30 AM? Teach the dog to feed himself?

Unlikely. When M comes home, I shower. I sweep under the beds. I play with my children. The brothers are better supervised and suffer fewer bonks. No child waits or cries for very long. And I get less gold time than I would have had on my own.

It comes down to this: I struggle to use gold minutes in the presence of other adults. I worry about what people think and I get sucked in to this thing that my mother did, and her mother before her, where until the work is finished there is no time to live.

What I really need from the supporting cast is 90-minutes whenever possible. Not a clean kitchen. Not special time with the brothers. Not an extra pair of hands when they’re getting out of the bath. “I don’t need help,” I tell my husband. “I need escape.”

Caring for three kids is hard. I struggle to imagine how another adult would do this so I rarely leave them; even with dad. But, every now and again, the feeling that I have nothing left to give manifests in my putting on my shoes.

This weekend my breaking point was a spaghetti squash that I served with marinara for lunch. I mean, it was a little bland but it wasn’t disgusting. No one would eat it. I laughed until I cried and then I said to my husband, “I’m walking away from this dumpster fire.”

“It’s not a dumpster fire,” he said.

“Yes, it is,” I said. “I just make it look really good.”

I throw elbows to protect gold minutes because no one is going to do it for me. But I don’t like stomping out of the house to get an hour. When that happens I waste half of my allotted me-time calming down. It doesn’t have to be this way.

When Avery was a toddler, I made a schedule that designated equal “autonomous human units” of free time to each of us. I had an unreasonable hour-and-a-half each morning before my family woke up, and M had an unreasonable hour-and-a-half every night after we went to bed. Additionally, we each got one evening a week and a three-hour block of time on the weekend. I knew when my gold minutes were coming, and it was pretty great.

Three kids and my husband’s commute now prohibit my scheduling ideals; but it’s okay. The more I work through this the more I realize time is a proxy. My real need, both simpler and more complicated, is to exist as my complete self.

I try to explain to M but he doesn’t get it. “I think you’re missing the old you,” he tells me. “But the new you is a beautiful thing.”

What I am trying to impart, is that the new me is dangerously close to becoming no-thing. This kind of loss plays a huge role in post-partum depression. We expect our new bundle to fill our lives with joy and instead a mom is faced with the private grief of losing everything she used to be.

The mothers of my ancestors did not talk about this loss of self. Women of the past couldn’t get fifteen or twenty adult years before having a family like women today. They had less to lose; but they smoldered with questions over who they might have been.

As a child, these women cared for me and taught me to nurture. But unconscious flavors simmered with their warmth; a scorn you heard only when they spoke to their husbands. I watched and learned to include that quiet resentment in my own recipe for how a mother is made.

I am a wife and mother. I would also like to continue on with my inner life of creativity and spirituality and an outer life of words and leadership. I hope to find a way.

My husband spends quiet evenings scrolling on the couch, finishes meals, leaves the house without much fanfare, even disappears for weeks at a time without ruffling the family feathers. He does as he pleases during bronze minutes when I am absolutely scrambling. It isn’t fair; but it is this way. My walking around like a bristlecone pine isn’t going to change anything.

My friend, S, jokes about this phenomenon. She says that before she had kids it was all planned out. “Parenting would be 50-50,” she said, “until I realized, Oh. I am the mother.”

So I get up every morning whenever the children wake and my husband sleeps another two hours. Other inequities swing my way. I recently handed him a list of “never gets done” chores, and he vacuumed my car and repaired the toaster. Last night, around bedtime, I noticed that the toilet was glowing from waaay down under the water. Eirik had flushed an LED nightlight. I will not be the one to recover it.

My husband works very hard for our family. Certainly he feels the tug of freedom as a strain against the weight of our responsibilities. But for all of my husband’s daily sacrifices, he is not shamed when he takes time for himself. Becoming a father did not require that he give up his drive, ingenuity, ambition, or bodily needs. His sense of self is alive and well. He does not worry about what other people think when he uses his own damn gold minutes.

In a recent podcast, I heard Esther Perel say, “Instead of anger, communicate hurt. Instead of criticism, communicate longing.” So yes, familial tasks take all of my time and I feel angry about what I lose in that transaction. I criticize my husband’s bottomless fountain of gold minutes because I have so few. I am hurt by the way family life snuffs out women’s voices and forces a withdraw of our work from the world. My heart goes out to all the moms who are part of this Great Resignation, especially to those who would rather earn a paycheck than caretake. We lament the loss of your faces in the workplace.

I want to be home raising my brood, and I long to be my whole self instead of a sweep-it-up mom robot. My husband wants me to be happy, but it is not important to him that I do a thing. He does not ask how much writing I’ve done lately.

May we value ourselves enough to take the time we have to do what we want. May our creative fires burn bright and grow. May children see their parents thriving.

***

Mom slave

I can’t believe how trashed my house is lately. Before I had kids I remember visiting homes with a lot of children and being surprised that no one cleaned for my arrival. Now I know, they did.

My mom is an exemplary housekeeper. Her house is not clutter-free but it’s always clean. She takes ownership over the problem; takes charge. Not because the mess is hers, but because the home is hers.

It seems an important detail to me, though to no one else, that all that shit on the floor is on a relatively brief rotation. Those empty spaces were occupied only moments before. Toys. Clothes. Yesterday’s waffles. This is how we live.

Weekends are particularly nuts around here. Comically nuts. Tonight, I push the breakfast dishes towards the middle of the table to serve dinner.

Avery looks around the room and says, “You know grandma’s house? Grandma’s house is really clean, isn’t it?”

Child. I’m trying.

*

Hopefully you’ve got a good woman who keeps the home front chaos down to a reasonable roar. Cleaning is optional for men, but the state of a woman’s home reflects her value as a wife, mother, and human being. If a guy is a complete slob you can look the other way or make excuses for him. “Helluva guy,” you might say. “His wife could use a little help around the house though.”

I’ll be damned if I don’t do anything with my day but tidy up. I maintain a house that is only reasonably messy as a feminist ideal but I am my own worst critic. It’s not my mess; but somehow it is my mess. Expect me to be defensive.

My mind is wired in a relational way. I spend a lot of time helping kids work through needs and conflicts. When they are copacetic, I try very hard to stop cleaning so that play, adventure, and creativity happen. This is the scale I wish to be measured by.

I want my family to be involved with the housework. Avery and I made a chart of 10 chores that need to be done every day. Dishes. Laundry. Prepare food. Clear table. Feed dog. Tidy books. Shelve shoes. Make beds. Sweep. Pick up toys. In reality I do some of these things multiple times a day but once is enough to avoid a house of “sloven filth,” as my husband calls it.

Sloven filth reflects upon a woman’s character; never a man’s. It remains an unwritten rule that house cleaning must come first. You can teach the babies to speak Swahili, but if the kitchen floor remains unswept then nobody cares. I rail against this reality like a rebellious teen.

My husband does not understand. “If you would clean the kitchen,” he says, “things would be a lot less chaotic for you.” Every Saturday morning he makes the kitchen his project. He cleans (zero babies under foot) faster and better than I ever do. Then he lays down on the couch as if to say, “Did that. I’m done.”

My cleaning style is a tireless dance of shifting objects. Collect cups, place next to sink. Gather perishable food, place next to fridge. Remove dirty socks, toss toward hamper. Each time I step out onto the floor I aim to restore spaces to a more sane situation if never quite to sanity. I never lie on the couch. I am never done.

When a husband or grandma out-cleans me, I get depressed. Here I am trying to be a parenting slouch (ie. maintain boundaries or eat breakfast) only to have other well-meaning adults pick up the slack. It’s embarrassing. In your presence I have no choice but to rally or cease to function.

In my husband’s most recent tirade through the cabinets, he paused, seeing that I stacked some glass bowls and lids. “Tupperware looks good,” he said.

It was meant as a compliment. But I do not want to be celebrated for my victories over Tupperware. How about, “Really? Avery has stopped biting the brothers?” Or, “Wow! The babies are falling asleep on their own?” Or, “Everyone is still alive?!” Bravo!”

Yeah. I did that.

*

Can the kids help? If only my children would stop destroying the house while I clean; that would be a good start. I’ve been trying to teach the brothers not to pull books off the shelves. They persist, but now Eirik says, “stopstopstop” while he does it. Maybe that’s an improvement?

In cultures where kids do chores willingly, parents include toddlers in house work as they become interested. Toren is constantly in the dust pile or grabbing for the broom while I sweep. He climbs into the dishwasher but he also helps me to close it. I will encourage him.

Sometimes Avery gets invested in our chore chart, but she is more interested in doing laundry than anything else. Mistakes have been made, and I may have to play hardball.

In serious chore face-offs I tell my daughter , “I can’t help you until you help me.” This is extreme, but also effective. She will learn to pick up or wipe her own bottom. Either way, it’s a win for me.

This morning, Avery cuts a scrap of paper into smitherines. “You’re making a mess,” I say. “Stop and clean up, please.”

“No,” she says, confidently. “You can pick that up later when I’m at school.”

Right. But did you have to say it out loud?

*

Clean is ephemeral; mess is forever. Eternal tidiness models a reality where mom has nothing better to do than clean up after other people. The need is real, but the expectation is unreasonable.

Last night I dreamed that I had completed “warrior training” and was being driven somewhere for my final test. Imagine my surprise when we pulled up to… my own home. Inside, an army of people waited to capture me and “make me their slave”. I did not escape; but neither did I lose hope.

As a kid I had a friend with a lot of siblings and blessedly little supervision. The yard was a child’s fantasy world where a hose ran 365 days a year. All of the neighborhood kids hung out there. In summer we dug and filled swimming pools. In winter we used 5-gallon buckets to make ice blocks for igloos. We built a treehouse with real boards, nails, and hammers and never an adult anywhere.

Inside, gloppy peanut butter and jelly goobers covered the oak table and a blue macaw scattered sunflower seeds across the living room carpet. I wondered why their mom didn’t clean it up. I never thought that she did, or that maybe we kids, or her husband, should do some cleaning. You might as well have suggested that the parrot pick up after himself.

Mom jobs are often invisible. Patriarchal culture implies that they are also easy. When we can’t keep up, we are left to wonder what is wrong with us. Moms are shamed into accepting the never-ending chore vortex as our lot in life. We work harder, have less to show for it, and say nothing.

I have few memories of that neighbor mom when she wasn’t carrying a laundry basket. But once, I saw her on the couch reading a novel. I remember because I’d never seen a mom read before. She was up against an impossible task; but I hope that messy house was in part the result of a high-quality no on her part.

I will not be your mom slave.

If we want better for our daughters, we have to want better for ourselves. Don’t mother away your personhood. Resist. It’s hard to let the dishes sit and do a thing, but this poem by Tess Gallagher helps:

I Stop Writing the Poem

to fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I’m still a woman.
I’ll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I’ll get back
to the poem. I’ll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there’s a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it’s done.

*

40

Avery counts the deep lines etched across my forehead. “One… Two… Three… Four.” Then she asks, “How many do I have, mama?” I tell her there are none but she doesn’t believe me. She climbs a stool to look into the mirror. “Zero,” she says; surprised and faintly disappointed.

This is what 40 looks like.

Forty hid far enough over the hill that I never gave it much thought until I turned thirty and the inevitability dawned on me. Looking for a fuller picture, I started asking 40-year-old people, “What are you excited about in the decade to come?”

“Gaining weight,” they said. “Losing hair from where it should be and growing hair from places where it shouldn’t be.”

What’s so great about 40? For starters, I know who I am, what I do, where I live, and who I love. I’m calmer and more confident. I have courage enough to admit what I don’t know. I forgive more and react less. I choose people who show up in my life over those who don’t.

When I look back on my 20s, I wish I’d been easier going and kept a lighter mind. For a while, fear of never finding love and family juiced the sweetness out of life and left me sucking a dry lime. Even when I got what I wanted; I found that I didn’t end up wanting what I got. Sure, I had some fun. But I lacked the perspective to understand how good life was; so it almost didn’t count.

The runes offered the same advice often enough that I started to pay attention: Be receptive, they said. If free will made me miserable, then maybe receptivity could bring something like happiness. So at twenty-eight I decided to do it: I would pursue nothing in favor of radical acceptance. For a few years, it worked. Aside from one bad night on the floor of a south-bound train out of Mumbai, it went very well.

Life is a game of Twister; not darts. Once I calibrated to this way of thinking the pieces started to come together. As my 30s ticked by (where did that decade go?), a lot of the things I lost sleep over in my 20s came to fruition. Partner. Home. Kids. The spinning brain cogs clicked and some of life’s overwhelming number of possible paths melted away. Anxiety dissipated. I gave up movement – temporarily at least – for a wild and terrible stillness.

A note of warning: When you open to the will of the universe, expect the unexpected.

At 40, I feel grown up. I’ve finally started to refer to myself as woman, rather than girl. I know when to hold ’em and when to fold ‘em. I’ve lost my thin tolerance for pop music. I’m quicker to drop grudges. If absolutely necessary, I can drink coffee black. Other than that, I’m the same person I was at twenty-eight.

Forty is where it is at. I’m ready settle in to the quiet landscape of my body; to stop living every day like an emergency; to recognize the miracle held in every pale, tangerine sunrise.

I miss the strength, infatuations, collagen, and wide-eyed aspirations of my 20s, but I wouldn’t go back and do those years again. Unless I could go back to my 20-something body and keep my 40-something mind. Then, I would definitely go back. That would be awesome.

*

When my friend T turned 40 she took a new job. Right away she knew it wasn’t for her, and she quit within the week. “At 40 I don’t have very many fucks left to give,” she said, “and I’m careful who I give them to.” We reveled knowing that at another time she would’ve stayed in that job for a year. Or years.

Mother. Adventurer. Artist. Healer. Advocate. I love who I am, and I have stopped hoping to become someone else. The best part of being 40 is a surprising sense of the unknown. Family restricts my freedom; but with my need for belonging saturated I can finally relax and wonder, what could the rest of my life be about?

The universe is full of solar systems a galaxies light years away. Everything matters, and nothing matters. Because what are we made of, but star dust?

*

The first age spots appeared on the backs of my hands this year, and I’ve been preaching the virtues of sunscreen to my daughter. It’s probably too late for me, but who knows? If I start wearing it now, maybe I’ll look great at fifty.

The same friends who turned 40 when I was 30 turned 50 this year. So I ask again: “What are you excited about in the decade to come?”

“Gaining weight,” they say. “Losing hair from where it should be and growing hair from places where it shouldn’t be.”

One of those 50-year-old friends is a photographer. I recently caught him taking pictures of a beautiful old tractor that sits gathering rust and lichen in a field near my home. He’s lived here twenty years, and I’m sure he has a thousand pictures of the thing. Yet the evening light was nice. I couldn’t resist calling out: “Haven’t gotten around to capturing that one yet?”

Tractor, September 2018

Tractor, September 2021

He shrugged in response. Maybe returning to whatever we love over and over again is as good a way to mark the passing of years as any.

What am I excited about in the coming decade? Play. Laughter. Movement. Delight. I exist well enough in this world of straight lines; but I would like to meet a version of myself with more my oil in my hips. I want to inhale deeply, and exhale fully, without thinking about it. I figure I might as well start being young now, before it’s too late.

***

Culinary Adventures

I like to cook; but I love to be fed. Somehow this dichotomy served me well in my first two decades of adulthood. But then it was 2020 and I found myself cast as the mother in a family of five. My under-confidence in the kitchen exacerbated our dinner stress, and I figured, as long as I am responsible for feeding all of these hungry people forever, I might as well learn. Time to take my meatballs out of my apron pocket.

I’m not a bad cook. I can make something robust, filling, and even tasty; but I am slow and my repertoire is limited. I only cook when I have unlimited time and that occurs under one condition: When pigs fly.

A big problem is that I start making dinner without an end goal. Seriously. I have no idea what these ingredients might combine to become. My only objective is to use up the vegetables before they liquify in the bottom of the refrigerator. I chop and sauté, add things from cans, and voila! A soup is born.

If I make anything other than soup, I screw up the details. I start with polenta, but turn the whole steaming potful into a baked cornmeal pizza crust. Toppings shift out of beans and cheese and into pesto and olives. Or leftover brown rice sneaks its way into Thai dishes. I am forever mixing and matching Asian sauces. Every meal is as much a surprise to me as to anyone else. Nothing ever tastes quite right.

“You are crossing cultures,” my husband complains.

This from a guy who puts ranch dressing on tacos. “How come when you do it, it’s fusion cooking, but when I do it it’s a mistake?” I ask.

“Because when I do it,” he says, “it’s delicious.”

Fine.

I surround myself with good cooks; which is not entirely coincidental. My husband must have been a five-star chef in a past life. He is a wealth of culinary insight, and for no obvious reason.

One afternoon, M stops home for lunch and I proudly serve him a turkey-havarti melt with avocado and homemade pesto. His response: “Any chance of a little tomato?”

M always knows what he wants. The flip-side is he doesn’t receive mediocre food well. He does not even receive good food well if it could be improved upon. For ten years I have avoided conflict with my husband by not bothering to feed him.

I slice the tomato, muttering not-so-under-my-breath. I’m fishing for an apology. He opens his mouth, and I look up. He says, “Do we have any red onion?”

I would hate him for this, except the sandwiches turn out so special.

Food presses me to answer questions of desire that I have long avoided: What do I crave? What might fulfill me? What do people eat, anyway?

My home cooking started the way all of my best learning does: By circling in from a seemingly unrelated point, taking my sweet time, and enjoying myself along the way.

Several months in, I had little to show for my efforts except better breakfast foods and baked goods that I was already pretty good at making. I spent hours in the kitchen, and still there was nothing to eat. One night, all I had to show for myself was peanut sauce, roasted veggies, and rice. “Is this dinner?” Avery asked. Um, yes?

Feeding children is tricky. I prepare dinner under the guise of feeding them but let’s be honest: They want yogurt and toast. And tacos. I could throw a taco at them every night and nobody would complain.

Best that I please myself whenever possible. I find myself doing crazy things; like I’ll be inspired by a vegan recipe but then I’ll add dairy and meat or make it gluten-free. Good stuff happens this way but it isn’t efficient. Fake parmesan and vegan butter, while interesting, are not exactly necessary.

Also, I do have to feed the children. I did a couple of experiments with meatless meats that didn’t go over well. Avery refused to eat the first one, and that should have been my sign. On the second foray she said, “Mama, if it doesn’t look like meat, and it doesn’t taste like meat, it isn’t meat.”

Learning any skill necessitates a certain willingness to fail. I experiment with new recipes when M is out of town so that my inner midwestern farm-wife doesn’t fret about pleasing him. But Avery let’s me know if I miss the mark.

Avery has her father’s pallet. She will eat whatever I make as long as it is delicious. Also, she needs presentation. I can have all of the elements of a meal ready to go; but if it falls apart into a pile of crying babies at the last minute and looks like pig slop she goes on hunger strike.

I want to make wholesome, healthy, delicious food. Sounds simple. But who cooks this way? Where are my people? Also, how do I create delightful meals without a lot of planning and fuss? If mung bean sprouts and ripe avocados grew out of my ears I would be much better at this.

Time to get goal-oriented. Every weekend I jot a quick list of things to make throughout the week and endeavor to do one creative thing in the kitchen every day. I visit the library and check out all the cookbooks. I bookmark everything that looks good, then become so overwhelmed that I go back and shove everything through the slot.

Later, I try again. Mercifully, an epiphany brings relief: Food is themed. Ethnicities. Seasons. Colors. Certain things go together, and certain things don’t. With a little research I also pick up a new recipe app that allows me to organize recipes this way and it gives me the feeling that life will go on. This is where I’m at, people.

Here are some profiles I am playing with:

Southeast Asian: Red curry paste, mung bean sprouts, cilantro, peanuts.

Mediterranean: Parsley, basil, thyme, tomato, olives, lemon, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, mozzarella, parmesan.

Mexican: Black beans, tomato, corn, chili powder, cumin, avocado, lime, red onion, cilantro.

Japanese: Soy sauce, miso, ginger, sesame, green onion, rice wine vinegar, seaweed.

Themes keeps me on task. I get a lot of mileage out of making sure I can name a dish, and clarify its ethnic origins before I start cooking. It’s also possible that thematic thinking affects my shopping more than my cooking. I don’t need to know what’s for dinner when I put in an order; but if I buy green onions then I also need ginger and miso. If I’m craving sun-dried tomatoes it’s worth picking up some feta. You’re welcome.

Getting interested in food, leaning in, has turned cooking from a source of stress into a source of pleasure. If I accomplished nothing except that I change 100 diapers and a day I feel sort of, meh. If I change 100 diapers, and make ratatouille, I feel awesome.

Eventually, I found a few sources that check all the boxes for me. Favorite cookbooks include Nourish by Cara Rosenbloom and Nettie Cronish and the Run Fast, Eat Slow series by Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky. Angela Liddon of Oh She Glows is a vegan genius and few things taste so good as vegetarian dishes by Cookie and Kate.

Cooking has also improved my diet more than restricting food ever did. The more I prepare inspiring vegetables, and seek protein in beans and seeds, the more I crave those foods.

My time in the kitchen is shifting out of responsibility and into play. I get to have a little adventure, protected there behind a gate. When the babies toddle over they always leave with a snack. If anyone cries then everyone gets a cookie. I want them to enjoy time with mom in the kitchen, too.

Let’s begin.

****

Success! The musical

It’s been a while since I last wrote. I got a job. I promised myself that I wouldn’t stop writing weekly posts but it’s been six months and I didn’t write any. Not. A. Single. One.

I’ve learned that the few hours that go into a blog post aren’t really just a couple of hours: They are a couple of hours when I have already played with A, walked the dog, filled the prescriptions, made the appointments, found the gift, thawed the meat, and still have energy to spare. It is a few hours when the house is quiet and I have something intangible on my mind that I can almost put a finger on. It is a few hours when I feel clear enough to place one word after the next and hope, with trepidation, that some lift might happen to make those words worth sharing. For six months, I have not had any such hours.

Last summer the baby-wearing hike, nap/writing, dinner-making routine I enjoyed the year before gave way to nap jail from 11:30 – 3:30. The summer was a sunny one and I was the only fish-belly left in Juneau. And in the ongoing parenting battle, I was losing. After a particularly trying day, I took matters into my own hands. Universe, I said, I’m ready for a job.

*

I started small with house parties and potlucks: “I’m going to open myself up to a job,” I would say to anyone who would listen.

“What kind of job,” the people asked.

“Don’t know,” I would say. “I’m waiting to find out where Juneau needs me.”

Sure enough: Someone sent me a job announcement. I applied, and I got it.

Now I work at a non-profit full of amazing people. Things have been good. Since starting here, I’ve felt a sense of belonging; I’ve felt needed, and like I’m making a difference, and I’ve felt appreciated. Being in a new field has brought words, books, and conversations I never knew existed. I’ve met people who will inspire me for the rest of my life.

Having arrived at this once vague and distant future where I am a working parent, things are not as I’d imagined. My job is harder than I thought it would be; and after paying for childcare and keeping the family in health insurance there isn’t much take home pay. I’m out of shape, and for the first time in my life I don’t go outside on a daily basis. I find myself wondering: Is this worth it?

The other night I dreamt of Success! The musical. Literally, those words were written in pink neon lights above this staircase where dancers were “climbing the ladder,” singing a chorus of resume building activities: Go to college, get a job, work real hard… over and over in three part harmony.

Thank you, dream brain, for leaving very little up to interpretation.

I’ve always thought that the only right way to success was to find a job that suited you well, devote yourself to it like a spouse, and go to it every day for twenty years. There would be rough times; ups and downs; but as long as you stayed in it the rewards would outweigh the sacrifices. That’s how these things work.

I’ve had plenty of interesting jobs, but nothing that rings of a profession. I’ve always thought that part if life was yet to come. I want this to be it.

But I’m struggling with the enormity of what making a difference actually means and I’m not sure I have what it takes. While I feel inspired by what a person might learn and accomplish in twenty years, I’m not sure I have inspiration enough to make it through next week.

This might look like a simple question of should I stay or should I go. But having invoked the Universe, having been placed clearly, squarely into my current situation, and having set an intention for the long haul actually leaves me with a crisis of faith.

Have you failed me, Universe? Have I failed you?

It doesn’t have to be this job, you kindly say. I know. Maybe I’m better suited for seasonal work. Or creative work. Or parenting.

It’s been a decade now since I started making all major decisions based on an intuitive sense of rightness – not choosing based on what makes sense, but on which choices drive a tingling up my spine or a sense of expansiveness in my heart. For the first time in a decade I feel uncertain about what I’ve gotten myself into.

For now I will do what I’ve learned to do in moments of existential anxiety: I refocus my view to see no farther than the end of my nose; I remember the reasons for the decisions that got me here; and I put one foot in front of the other.

Second baby dilemma

Found this gem from October 2019 in the drafts folder. Enjoy!

As a young person I pictured myself as the eventual mother of two kids. Upon learning what parenting actually is, however, I am fairly on the fence about a second baby.

One kid slowed me down a lot, but not completely. When A was one I hiked a ton and once even enjoyed a bonfire among friends with a beer in my hand and a sleeping baby on my chest. “You’re winning right now,” said my friend K. Yes. I am.

Now that A is two, my husband and I are back up at the mountain trading off time on the lift and time with our daughter. It’s not the endless string of powder days I once lived and breathed for, but it’s enough.

I’ve soared through some nice snow this winter and had a ton of fun on the platter pull. It’s great to be back in the world and remembering my former freedoms. Which brings me to a dilemma. To try for a second baby? Or not?

Feeling torn over the idea of a second child reminds me of the last time I bought downhill skis. I had the option to choose high-cost, high-rewards powder boards. They slow you down in a lot of situations but man are they fun when conditions are just right. Or I could go with a more versatile all-mountain set up like I’d had in the past.

“You like to travel light and quick,” said my friend E. “Stick with the all-mountain. Less to haul around.”

She had a point. I liked what I had and I’d be safe to stay there. But what about the all-American urge to shoot for the moon and have it all?

“Powder boards,” said my husband. “You already have all-mountain skis. Time for something bigger.”

You can’t win if you don’t play.

The world seems all-in on this question. No one regrets the decision to have a second child, but no one could admit that either. Parents of second babies must encourage their propagation because they need equally slow, bat-shit crazy families with wheelbarrows full of kid gear to adventure with. All sources are biased.

The only slightly contrary insight I solicited is this: “Going from one baby to two,” says my friend S, “feels like going from one baby to 100 babies.”

A second child offers the first at least a shot at a great sibling relationship. Parents get to recycle their baby knowledge and correct mistakes from the first round. Baby stuff can be dug out of the crawlspace, used once more, and given away for good. Grandma’s heart would sing.

I miss my friends and mountains. Another baby would put this type of fun on the back burner for a few more years. Three more years of shitty sleep and no friends and not enough exercise. The inconvenience of pregnancy and lasting wear and tear on my body. Childcare for two kids would be so gosh-darned expensive. Paying for college, too. Eight-billion people on the planet. And my current baby just poured liquid laundry detergent on the carpet for the second time this month; so there’s that.

If I go for it I’ll be pushed by the same force that always drives me forward: Fear that if I don’t, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.

Why else would I do it? For squaring up the family. For efficient use of chairlifts, Alaska Airlines companion fares, and SUVs. For the love of second babies, who are so funny and sweet and chill. For the possibility of getting to know you, mysterious child, who is at once me and my husband and everyone who came before and someone completely new. For watching you grow, change, learn, and become who you are. For looking at your sweet smile and tiny toes and wondering where you were before this moment in my arms. For the freaking sanity of not having to think about whether or not to have a second baby anymore.

I’m old enough that I can’t hang around in this zone much longer. Do I give up what freedom and adult conversation I have for the sake of one more potentially cool kid?

With the birth of my first child I got to satisfy a deep curiosity about what motherhood is; but where would bearing another leave me?

At home. With a kid in each arm and staring at these big fat powder boards.

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Time for one’s self

Mama enjoying a morning off

Trying to be an on-top-of-it person, I had the nerve to respond to an email yesterday. In the two minutes I gave it, baby A snatched a pen and scribbled all over a white chair for the second time this week. The first time it happened, I was wiping up food she’d thrown on the floor as a diversion.

This combines well with the fact that I recently diagnosed my 12-year-old dog with depression. I can’t say I don’t understand it: Two years ago I went from his best friend to the person who hurls food at him twice daily and otherwise yells at him to Go outside! Come inside! Stop eating the baby’s food! Get over here and eat the baby’s food! Yeah, I pretty much yelled at him for the past two years while I cared for my late-larval-stage human.

The dog is now on a strict regimen of no being-yelled-at, having his head patted each time I walk by, kibble set lovingly before him, and one full-body hug daily. It seems to be working.

In helping my dog I realized that the only way to avoid such scenarios is to be infinitely available to my family forever. I made it until 5 p.m., but as soon as my husband came home I ran screaming out of the house.

The scribbled chair, the doggie depression, all of my failings come down to one issue: I need some time for myself. People do. That need doesn’t disappear when one becomes a mother.

It’s like I tell my husband – If you are doing something autonomous that makes sense, then I am not.

“Doing anything for our selves feels like selfishness,” says my friend T, “but it is actually more like self-preservation.”

My main scarcities are two-fold: 1) professional opportunity and 2) “wellness,” which includes sleep, nutritious food, yoga, and outdoor adventure. A person needs to go for a walk once in a while without also extolling the virtues of mittens. Maybe if I just get up at 5:30 in the morning…

Writing is my proxy for professional effort. It is something I do during every nap time whether it lasts 15 minutes or three hours. It is something I can do while solo parenting or following my husband around as he commutes between towns. It is something I can do even though A does not yet tolerate child care. Without this time, my day is reduced to wiping things.

I squish writing into the interstitial spaces of the day, which is why I have pulled over to work on this post at the side of the road at the edge of cell phone service. Baby A sits in her carseat in the back. ‘Wheels on the bus’ plays on the car stereo on repeat. I will stay here until she bellows.

Here is the one benefit of parenting as it applies to any art form: When the spare time you have asymptotically approaches zero, everything superfluous is stripped away and what you have left is exactly enough time for the one thing you most need.

I need time away from parenting – to work, be creative, and exercise – for my sense of self worth, but also because it makes me a better parent. When I get it I am kinder and more patient with my child, and I have more fun with her throughout the day. And yes, the husband and dog benefit as well.

Well, another writing day achieves lift off. Now all I have to do is find someone to jump my car 🙄.

Shit I do for the eyes of other parents

If the toenails, fingernails, and bangs get cut in the same day there is only one explanation: Someone important is coming over.

I like things to look good for you. I like them to look good for myself too; but without the flood of anxious energy that comes when guests are expected, we rarely get beyond this:

Hey, at least the socks match.

Sock-matching usually falls into a category I call “shit I do for the eyes of other parents.” This phenomenon ensures that I’m not only caring for my child, but that I look like I’m caring for my child. And we all know that’s what being a Good Mom is all about.

Outside of parenting, it is normal to limit or avoid pointless work. When it comes to kids though, we repeatedly put hats and mittens back on, pick up toys from the floor, and scrub hardened goo off the high chair even though the child is bound to eat again. Also, there are bibs.

“What’s the point of bibs?” I ask my friend S. “I just take off baby A’s clothing when she eats. Skin is washable.”

“Kids should take off anything clean when they enter the house,” says S, pretending to hang an item on a hook. “Keep the good clothes for going out.”

S has kids older than mine, and she says there is lots of shit she does for the eyes of other parents. Her son asks why he can’t keep wearing the same shirt to school day after day, even though it doesn’t stink or anything.

Hard to explain to yourself, much less your kid, how a parent’s love can be measured by outfit changes.

“I don’t know,” she tells him. “You just can’t.”

Permanent presence

When I get around to ordering myself a T-shirt with my kid’s face on it, the word’s will say, “I’m with coo-coo.”

Two nights ago we bribed A into eating dinner by telling her that if she took a bite then daddy would bounce his legs on the yoga ball in a silly way. Last night she only ate if she could moonwalk while she chewed. Tonight I let her eat while we watched Monkey Planet on BBC.

Dinner moonwalk

Catching up on some old issues of The Sun, I recently read an interview of Jennifer Senior on modern parenting. This passage caught my attention:

When children are small, their prefrontal cortexes are barely developed. The prefrontal cortex regulates impulses and is in charge of planning. So, as the parent of a toddler, you’re interacting with a small creature who has no self-control, can’t imagine a future, and lives in the permanent present.”

The article goes on to explain how you’ll often disappoint your young Buddha as the adult world has places to go and people to see and you are expected to be on time. I’m not worried about any of that. I’m thinking:

This explains why A works a spoon through cottage cheese like she is trying to solve it, rather than eat it.

We have all attended enough yoga classes, watched enough Oprah, or read enough Eckhart Tolle in this decade to know that the present moment is a good place to be.

The Buddha said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Certainly, being present is the main thing I know about how to live happily and be a good parent.

But I have not been doing a good job of this lately.

A is having fun and I am not because I am operating under the expectation that I will accomplish something adult with my day – something saner, more appreciated, and with better pay. But most likely, I wont, and so I feel unhappy.

For example, I am good at the work of parenting (a lot of my time is spent preparing food and cleaning up) but I do not play with my daughter as often as I could.

I don’t play because I don’t recognize what A is doing as play. She opens drawers to fish for objects. She flicks light switches on and off. She tears things off shelves. She asks for snacks and then throws them on the floor. She pulls the dog’s tail. She grabs whatever she can reach off of the counter.

I never wanted to be that parent constantly saying no! And don’t do that! And stop stop stop! But baby A spends a lot of the day doing the wrong thing. It is also true that these naughty behaviors are her trying to get my attention. For better or worse, the good times come when I do almost nothing except watch her unfold.

The same spontaneous, daring, curious qualities that make raising this child difficult are the same things that make it fun. The other day a box store’s background music caught her fancy so she threw up her arms and started pulsing like Katy Perry. One moment you’re pushing a cart and looking for a shower caddy and the next moment you’re raising the roof. Thats my baby.

Why does her present moment look like so much fun while mine feels like such a struggle? Why am I feeling bonkers while she is on a spiritual quest? Oh, right. We are both on a spiritual quest.

Some of my chore-ing needs to be done. Actually it all needs to get done, and with our slow progress there is good reason for me to keep working. But in part my busy-ness is about my wanting to finish something today – even if it is just a pile of dishes.

The unwritten part of presence, is that it involves a lot of not doing what I want to do. Or what I thought I was going to do. And it is very often uncomfortable. Nothing pushes a person toward spiritual growth so extremely as adversity.

As long as I’m trapped in a permanent present, I might as well have a little more of what she’s having.

Tonight we are ready for bed a little early so I pull out these wind-up cars. You know the type – roll them back and forth a few times and they’ll race forward under their own power. I am doing this because I don’t want to fight a not-quite-tired kid to sleep. I run them; A retrieves them. Back and forth, back and forth.

But then the purple pick-up really takes off. It zips across the kitchen and runs smack into the wall on the other side of the house. I laugh out loud. A hoots and claps her hands.

For a moment I am not responsible-mommy-ing anymore: I am up past bedtime and having fun.

Her need for love does not shame her

I started this blog in early 2018 when my daughter was already eight months old. Lately I’ve been trying to write a little bit about who she and I were together in those first blissed-out, mama-fog, fourth trimester months before she went mobile and my happy stay-home parenthood got served up with a daily side of bonkers.

I thought I remembered it all – the first smiles, the endless nursing, the sweetness of getting to know M as a father – until today when I met my new niece Baby S (!). It’s hard for me to remember that Baby A was ever so tiny and helpless.

The best part about holding S is remembering that a baby’s nature is that of a fierce pink glow with skin. She can’t focus her eyes all of the time (a girl gets tired), but she loves like nobody’s business. Babies are such awesome little battery packs.

Sifting through my sparse notes from the early days with A, I find this line – Her need to love and be loved does not shame her. No matter what anyone else says, this is the best part of being a parent. You’re just rambling along through your own life, trying to do your best and often falling short, then bam, there’s a new precious human to remind you, and everyone in a two-relationships-removed radius, that each of us in our original state is an embodiment of love.

If I dig deep, I can remember being love. I sit on my mom’s lap, snuggled to her chest in a calm, warm moment. Her skin is so soft. There are no pinging text messages to interrupt us, nobody is taking our picture, she is not scrolling through social media or wishing to be. It is just me and my mom with her fleshy arms wrapped tight around me.

Mom would never break that spell so I must have done it. And that’s ok–little minds should not know that love is rare and fleeting. Kids should be free to bounce toward whatever catches their fancy, assuming that love is always just a few steps and an upward glance away.

Lately I have been consumed with a fear that I am disappearing – that my need for work, stimulation, and relief will never rise to the priority slot of our family’s needs; at least not in a satisfying way. Millions of mothers over countless generations have lost their I: Nobody else is going to remember my dreams if I don’t. Somedays are not mama days’ but I am not going anywhere. My need for a public voice is too strong to let my passions quietly wither into a cool undertone of defensive anger. There must be a better way.

I remember all of the different forms of love that came after my mom. I think back to early experiences of romantic love, when I was near to someone and consumed, wanting the moment never to end. But no other person has ever been so willing to stay there, locked in, as she was. At some point, I became the one who was unable to just be.

I lie nursing my daughter and wishing for precious time. Like pain, love is intense, and these thoughts pretend to serve me by pulling me away. Held inside of my being, love is safe, but shared love is vulnerable. Love is ephemeral and busyness is a constant. We learn to go with the sure bet.

As much as I hate to admit it, the root of my desire to write, meditate, eat chocolate, or do something else is my need to love warped into a new form like a shirt put on backwards: Love isn’t waiting to be created when we get back to doing something real–love is there all along. We only need to remember how to give and receive it.

Over and over with baby A I remind myself of where I am, that the full force of my love is appropriate and matters here, that her turning away is still a long way off.

I allow myself to stay and bask in her steady, pulsing presence. She gives me everything she has, asking only that I do the same. I put in the effort and glow my pink light back to her. My darling, I have nowhere else to be.