A few weeks ago, I was standing in the bathroom, providing moral support for Y. N was trying to throw washcloths into the toilet as Y cheered him on with that manic-demanding tone that after several hours makes me feel crazy and panicked, like hyenas are about to eat everyone. It was still the middle of a long day. I retreated into a train of thought that eventually resulted in me saying aloud “I wonder if I could be a teacher…”
Me: Yeah. I mean not really. I don’t think I want to be a teacher. When I was little I did.
Y: But you aren’t anything! You’re just a mommy!
N: Yeah. Just mommy! Not teacher! [said with his impish gremlin-grin and that “you silly…!!!!” tone]
I wrestled the washcloths from N, coerced Y into washing her hands. While she did, I found myself riding the familiar micro-second roller coaster up sparking, overburdened anger at yet another post-poop hand-washing power struggle, suddenly dropping into surprising tenderness at the delicateness of her tiny hands rubbing together in the water, fear of the sophisticated observation and defiance in her gaze, a different fear of the vulnerability and love-seeking also in her gaze, tightness against all the feelings, exhaustion at the thought that there are 3-5 more hours before Anne gets home from work.
I looked for something to think about, suddenly remembered the conversation (that had occurred one minute ago) about teachers and moms. I felt uneasy, of course, that my daughter thinks being a mom isn’t anything, or that moms can’t be other things, or that every identity I had or accomplishment I made before she was born doesn’t matter. But it’s true; right now I am just a mom.
I accepted a full-time position starting in August. And an internship. I’m excited about both.
And I’m reflecting on these strange, beautiful, utterly reality-bending and self-exploding years home with my kids. The things that happen to your brain, mind, identity, soul, when all day every day you are up against the biggest feelings that you’ve ever had and the tiny people that you love the most in the world are also having the biggest feelings that they’ve ever had and you’re riding this crazy edge of stunning lack of stimulation and complete overwhelm. It matters SO MUCH, it grows to obscene proportions, whether Y eats breakfast or fights my suggestion to go to the park, I find myself driving so many mph over the speed limit because it’s disorienting to N if he misses the “hello” song at music class. The most seemingly inconsequential things grow so big that they block out the sky, creating another planet, one with too much gravity and not enough oxygen.
My day is unbearably awful. Y has thrown herself on the floor and refused to leave the house because her dinosaur shoes are too big and her bunny boots are too small, because she hates transitions, because she struggles in ways she doesn’t tell me about, because she just wants to keep playing Middle School Girl at the Pet Store. She hit me and then in time-out tried to break open her bedroom door with her dance of the little swans jewelry box. N is freaked out by his dysregulated ladies, angry that I won’t let him have my phone and the dishwashing detergent. He is simultaneously pushing and slapping at me, clinging to me and hugging me, his tiny body and mere two years on this earth unable to manage the terrifying implication of his anger at me. I am worried about attachment, always, I am failing them, there is something very wrong with all of us, and I need to get away, I try to walk into another room, and they both collapse, screaming. So I just sink to the ground, and they both crawl into my lap and we apologize and talk about what we can do differently and read a book about baby owls in the night forest and it’s sunny outside (it’s almost always sunny outside), and I carry them both into the backyard. N makes giggly monster sounds as he happily launches himself into the netting on the trampoline. Y cooks “smooshy pa’Soup” tonics of berries, leaves mud and flowers for her sick brontosaurus who never gets better, and in fact has recently become mute and dubbed “silent Bronta,” and maybe I should worry about some preschool precursor to Munchausen Syndrome, or the symbolism of Bronta being unable to speak, but I don’t, I sit on a swing and drink coffee and my day is gorgeous and peaceful and flowing.
Sometimes, a lot of times, it’s just boredom. I used to subscribe to the idea that “boredom” is a defense against/indication of subtle uncomfortable emotions that are not being known or addressed. But, during bath, after 25 minutes of making and serving every possible kind of pretend artisanal bathwater tea (“do you guys have sake chestnut basil hibiscus ginger dandelion tea?” “Yeah, we do! Here you go! Drink it!!”) I’m pretty certain there isn’t always something under that feeling. It’s just boredom, alternating with the most intense, deepest love, tenderness, rage, and fear, despair, and hope, that I am capable of feeling without my body breaking open. And sometimes I think it does break open, and then parts of me fall out and evaporate into the endless desert sky, never to be seen again.
I had the privilege of sitting for eight job interviews in the past few months. I had to borrow clothes from friends because my pre-baby work clothes don’t fit quite right anymore, and also, they feel irrelevant and not good enough. There were all the “what do you most want us to learn about you?” “What are your greatest strengths and challenges?” type questions. I sat there in someone else’s clothes, weirdly nervous in a way I never used to get, my confidence eroded by five and a half years of no one telling me that I and my work are valuable. I watched my stunningly sleep-deprived, prolactin-addled brain lose its sharpness, wondering if I really am wiser, more confident, more discerning, more mature and well-regulated than I used to be, wondering if it matters since I am also definitely slower and dumber. I wrestled with my ambivalence about returning to work lest it break through and scream around the room like it did during that third committee interview, (which was probably for the best, but still). I felt surprising excitement layered with the ambivalence, re-discovering the colors and contours and tantalizing complexity of a world that I had only remembered dimly and flatly, and an equally complex but years-dulled part of myself stirring to leap up and meet it. I didn’t know how to answer the questions. I don’t know who I am anymore. The concepts and identities I reached back for out of habit didn’t totally fit anymore, felt irrelevant.
Y responded to my announcement that I’m going to go back to work by asking me what my “therapist name” will be. I had fun considering all the therapist alter egos I could create. I am incredibly curious about the therapist, employee, colleague I will be now. Of course, these years, my brain has been gasping for breath, setting itself on fire, trying to eat me, stooping to all manner of unholy and unhelpful activity in order to stay alive. I’ve been dying to contribute, to participate in a bigger way. And I’m scared of the way my mind has changed, the things you lose when you transform, the things you lose when you don’t transform, the grief of not being with my kids all day, those little people whose cells are still, forever, in my body, whom I’ve spent every day with since they were conceived, whose rhythms, needs, desires and dislikes have become mine. What will I be like away from that?
I guess we’ll see. I have obviously learned so much these past five and half years home with my kids, what I have been studying, experimenting with, pressed up against all day every day, is how to love and be with the utter, insane messiness of being a person–my person-ness and my little people’s person-ness–all of it is so wildly, floridly on display all day long. I have that to contribute as a social worker and a colleague and a citizen and I think it will be really valuable in this world, even if my clothes don’t quite fit, and my therapist name is just Stephanie, and I sometimes wish I were making bathwater tea.