I reached to the back of the medicine cabinet tonight to grab my ziplock bag of really old, really stale Virginia Slims and my funky Bic lighter. I haven’t allowed myself to have a casual light for awhile. The once-a-blue-moon act doesn’t really pair well with morning exercise, so my rebellious refuge hasn’t worked with my staunch commitment. Seems pretty metaphorical, leaving a borrowed itch by itself while I work on something else. But despite a positive day as teacher, the challenging night as a mother needed an innocuous antidote.
A couple years ago, I wrote a story I was really proud of. I told myself I’d work and work and turn this story into a novel. The writing had moments of glory, some sentences actually saying what they meant, but in retrospect, the piece needs a lot of work. The story centers around two characters who are dear to my heart, Ellie and Paul. In the years I’ve been removed from the piece, when I try to think about it again, I see Ellie casually walking around her house, one that befriended her intimately; she saunters from inside the home to outside the home, sometimes sitting on the porch and looking out while she smokes, sometimes packing or unpacking the stuff in the kitchen. I feel Ellie is casually stuck there, just waiting on me to write her out of it.
Tonight, I sat on my porch and watched the cursive smoke and had this funny, clearly obvious thought: I, too, live in this house that saved me, sit here on this porch and look up. My view is shorter and green; hers is expansive and blue, but I laughed to myself at how this character I made up, like me, is still figuring shit out.
I was only able to understand my best friend’s love of this callous habit because I understood what it gave her: smoking demands quiet, providing a solitary act of thinking, as if the smoke builds a wall around you and gives you this selfish space to just think in solitude for a a few minutes. It’s not for nothing that I am like a teenager with this motif in stories.
After putting the kids to bed, I had some space to myself to think. I think I’ve been in a parenting slump lately. My son is in a mom-heartbreaking phase that makes me feel far from him, and my daughter has entered a new one that makes me want to hold her close. To equalize each day to ensure some sanity and safety, I’ve carved even more inside me and been left many evenings with this empty pit in my throat. Some summer days chipped hard at my patience. And yet there were warm pool days, a beach vacation, fishing, and ziplining. Each night I go to bed hoping tomorrow I’ll be better equipped to handle the minute, the fickle, and the aggressive, and a few hours after the sun rises, it’s a challenge again. But meals happen, playdates ensue, clothes getting washed and folded, little love notes slipping into new lunch boxes, new school clothes being bought with care.
I heard on a show recently that our heart, despite what we think it can handle, continuously expands for the people we love. I believe that in the same way that I know I have two legs and two arms, a natural truth despite its fragility. What scares me recently, though, is the long haul. I’ve said here before that in your 30s, your life isn’t celebrated in 4-year increments–high school, college, masters, engagement, marriage, baby, and baby, etc. Most women in my age bracket with kids around my kids’ age, if they are willing to say it out loud, can find themselves–on really tired days–asking themselves the following: how do I do this for the long haul? Of course I recognize the pattern that once this stage is gone, you miss it, coloring it with some regret and a pushing it a shade or two more inside the lines. Maybe the challenge is how to both sustain yourself and raise good kids. A friend and veteran parent said it easy and true: it’s hard to raise good kids. But some days it’s a challenging blessing to look up at the work that is just beginning.
At my gym, trainers have what they call endurance days. Those are the days you may find yourself on the treadmill for 23 minutes going up and down, slow and fast, up and down, but you can’t stop running no matter what. Like exercise, I think parenting endurance is being either built or tested like a muscle ripping and repairing, ripping and repairing.
I’ve been in an honest slump, too. I posted on Instagram one day about how I bought myself roses. I made a light comment about how I deserved them for staying calm after my headstrong son threw stuff at me while I was driving. It’s not like me to post something bad about my kids for many reasons, but it was true–those flowers were gorgeous and well-deserved. That truth caused some controversy with my family, my parents not liking my expression, my open-minded brother expressing over brunch that he didn’t really like it and that it was outside my norm. In truth, I had felt guilty after posting it, even reading the supportive comments with more care than usual just to see if I overstepped. But when we talked, I saw something else grow harder inside: the part whose sweat on endurance parenting has left little room for a truth that isn’t mine. I recognized that defensive feeling creep up fast. What good does it do to even myself if I only post pics of manicured me and not “I survived today” moments?
I walked around the store a few days ago without my kids, a rare summer moment. Moms warding off kids’ questions in a late-July haze, staring forward, probably trying desperately to remember why they were there in the first place, while pushing the cart, kids’ fingers dragging them along. One exasperated mom telling her kid, “We are leaving right now if you ask me that question again!” I see texts of my working-mom friends who are battling, too; divided in desire and ability.
Tomorrow morning my growing kids will step on the bus and start new school years. The summer went fast, so a few days ago, I started a list of things we did this summer because I know we did good things with good humans even through my parenting slump. When I look at the list in the light of a few red embers, I see two truths, one unrelated and one related: 1) money has less effect on my long-term happiness than I thought it could; 2) how much we do, and how much I give out as a parent will be taken as a reel, not so much a picture with its rectangular, finite edges. It will pull, and pull, and it will create something whose editors, my children, will have full authority (and hopefully grace) as they cut the footage together.
For any of you out there in a version of this place, I hope the slump fades gently as new routines start back up. I think I’ll cling on to the honesty despite the challenges, getting stronger in mind and body, and maybe I’ll even get to the day where I can write my Ellie off that porch.