Motherhood Full Circle
Lessons learned transitioning from lawyer to a stay-at-home parent/struggling poet.
I didn’t set out to write poetry — I don’t really even read the stuff, but a few weeks ago, poems came to me and so I wrote them. I’d type them out on my phone or my computer and send them to my husband: “Apparently, I write poetry now?” I’d say, and “What do you think of this one?” He’d write back with probing insight: “Nice” and “That’s intense.” After I wrote a few heavy poems — ones about my brother’s death and my husband’s deployment to Afghanistan, I grew inspired to write a poem about my experience as a mother. I was bathing my two daughters and my four-year-old said, “Look, Mommy, you’re turning in circles!” Taken aback by the depth of her perception I asked, “What do you mean?” She pointed her sudsy hand to the bath fixture where the reflection of my face was indeed swirling. (Parenting tip: kids are literal.) But still she got me thinking about the circles I turn each day in the repetitions of motherhood.
By the next day, I had composed a poem called Orbit, which focuses on a daily routine a parent might experience. One of the poem’s themes speaks to the near-constant assembly and disassembly of snacks, outfits, sleep and crafts: “Each day is an orbit: wake up, clean up, go to sleep, wake up and clean up again; // Pack it up, unload it, pack it up again, the food is everywhere.” I sent it to my husband confident I would receive a rave review. That confidence was misplaced. Instead, I received a response that sounded something like this: “You make mothering our children sound like a monotonous plight.” I typed and erased several responses to that text message. In a way he was right; the poem was thick on themes of repetition and tedium. But, I concluded, I was being honest, and I wasn’t wrong to point it out. The poem addresses the repetitious nature of childcare, and also illustrates that repetition walking hand-in-hand with the wonder, humor, and delightful and unique perspective children bring to ordinary things, like pigeons and squirrels. “Maybe you’ll make that clear in the second draft,” my husband said. (You can read all of Orbit at the end of this piece.)
Before I was a struggling poet, I worked as a litigator with a corporate law firm. My husband and I hired a wonderful nanny when our oldest daughter was just six months old. For the next three years, she took excellent care of our two daughters and kept the trains running on time. I did not comprehend exactly how much work our beloved nanny did until I left my job last year. Let me be clear — working is exhausting, parenting is exhausting, working and parenting is exhausting, it’s not a competition. But there is something particular about caring for young children that is distinct from any employment I’ve experienced. You’re high, you’re low, you’re high again, and that’s just within the first fifteen minutes of waking up. Children demand your presence, strength and patience despite your own issues, like hunger, full bladder, or a case of the Mondays. And the dishes, laundry, and general organizational mayhem young children generate humble me even now after a year of experience. There is no business week with children. It’s all of the days in all the weeks.
We want to label things in normative terms: good, bad, stressful, relaxing, exhausting, restorative, happy, sad and so on. Parenting involves all of these descriptions and more on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. We like bright lines that let ourselves and others know exactly where things stand. But parenting does not lend itself to this practice very well. When asked how I feel about staying home with the kids, I want to respond, “I feel everything about it.” I am thankful to be on this path, conflicting emotions and uncertainty and all. Here are five things I’ve learned along the way:
One: I’m a kinder and more interactive person.
When I was working, I looked at everyone, including my husband, kids and co-workers, as one more person who needed something from me, carving out more of my limited time. This resentment closed me off from others and made me less empathetic. I declined to make small talk in elevators and in lines like I had done my whole life. I walked with my head down and made eye contact only when absolutely necessary. A few months after leaving work, however, I embraced a new attitude. I took my girls on long-weekend road trips to see family and friends. I wrote notes to people. I engaged strangers without seeming like a jerk. I finally learned our mailman’s name. I even attended a political fundraiser by myself, and actively introduced myself to new people. I received the most touching e-mail the next morning from a city employee to whom I had introduced myself. He said he never meets new people at these events and he appreciated talking with me.
Two: Unload the dishwasher before going to bed.
Since leaving work I have been surprised by the amount of time I devote to dishes, laundry and other glamourous duties, such as diaper pail emptying — all things our nanny had taken care of seamlessly. I’m still getting a handle on my tactical approach to all the messes. Some people take the “dishes-will-always-be-there-spend-more-time-with-your-kids” approach. That works sometimes, but often the mess irks me when I’m smiling and singing the eighth round of itsy bitsy spider. I make sure the dishwasher is run and then emptied each night before I go to bed. It’s tough to start the day with a sink full of “soakers” and a washer full of clean dishes just waiting to be unloaded. Taking any and all other suggestions!
Three: Some people won’t understand your decision, and you don’t need them to.
When I walked away from my job, I was sure it was what I needed to do, but I wasn’t confident. I dreaded discussing the transition with others, most likely because I had based so much of my worth on what others thought of me and where I worked. My decision seemed to bother certain people, even some who are close to me. It didn’t fit neatly into a familiar box and therefore it was unsettling as if something were wrong. And that’s ok. As I grew more confident in my decision, I cared less and less what these people thought; I didn’t have to own their expectations and disappointment.
Four: Cozying up with discomfort
This past Mother’s Day I read an article in the New York Times that drew on the work of psychotherapist Roszika. The article surmised the feelings I had noticed over my year home with my children: “Motherhood is not good or bad, it’s both good and bad. It’s important to learn how to tolerate, and even get comfortable with the discomfort of ambivalence.” It’s tough work, made harder by the beautiful images on my Instagram feed, but I’ve grown more comfortable holding multiple and sometimes conflicting feelings in the same hand.
Five: Prioritize with zeal.
Writing has been a hobby of mine since I wrote stories about my dogs Milo and Otis (very original, I know) in third grade. At the office, I would write on my lunch breaks, and at home I would take that pre-dawn hour when both of my children slept twelve hours a night. Once I left my job, through some sort of conspiracy I’m sure, I spent much of the evening shuttling children back to their beds before giving up and letting them kick me in the back all night. The pre-dawn writing time no longer made sense for me, and apparently, there is no lunch break for stay-at-home-parents. After experimenting with various arrangements, I realized I had to prioritize the writing time if I really wanted to write. For me that meant cutting out the hour of Netflix before bed and at times strategically scheduling a babysitter.
PS: Only take the kids on the subway in a double stroller during rush hour when absolutely necessary.
“Mommy, you’re turning in circles,” she said.
I’m afraid she’s seen through me and understands.
Her bubble-covered hand points to my reflection swirling in the bath fixture,
And I see my mistake. She’s not wrong, though.
Each day is an orbit: wake up, clean up, go to sleep, wake up and clean up again;
Pack it up, unload it, pack it up again, the food is everywhere.
Wheels spinning, the stroller squeezes through doorways, and meanders down paths, circles back to the apartment where it rests unceremoniously, not like a car with its own garage.
Wheeees down the slides, nervous hands spot reckless pirate-jaunts back up the stairs.
Pick the leaves, pluck the flowers, throw the stones, no, don’t throw the sand.
Ducks quack, dogs bark, birds chirp, you know I’m not sure what squirrels say.
Hold my hand, look left, look right, don’t be scared but double-check anyway.
Have a snack, take a nap, fold the laundry, wake up, have a snack again.
Read a book, paint a picture, read a book, the crayons are everywhere.
Wheels spinning, the stroller squeezes through the doorways and rolls us out onto the boardwalk.
Run to the ferry, wave to the sailboat, watch the sun set behind the canal.
Slurp the noodles, isolate the carrots, throw the plate onto the floor.
“Do people die when they’re ten?” she asks. “Where will you be when I am 50?”
I struggle to answer, and she’s onto the next: “Can we go to the beach? I want to make sand angels.”
Back in the tub, the tepid water floats tiny plastic boats; foam farm animals cling to the porcelain.
In jammies they run to their beds, holding the books in their small arms.
Cuddle in close. Read the books. Tell the stories. Kiss the heads.
Pull the comforters to the chin. Flip the switch and turn on the night light.
Sneak out to the kitchen: pack it up, unload it, clean it up again.
In orbit around these tiny suns, I rotate on my axis, and my mind spins.
“Am I stuck? In a rut? Are we even going anywhere?”
And then the seasons begin to turn; I see the changes all at once.
The spring gives way to summer, and my eyes water from the glare.