I can no longer afford my eight-year-long bottled kombucha addiction. I had a good run with my preferred brand (GT’s), my best flavors (synergy, ginger, strawberry, chai) and the willingness to make an extra trip to the store for no other reason than that I was out of kombucha. So yes, addiction is the right word, though I would not call it a vice. It’s full of probiotics and enzymes and, in its fermented fizziness, has a habit-forming quality of the acquired taste. But at $3.99 a bottle every single day, I simply can’t justify it anymore—even if I try to cheat by folding it in to the grocery budget.
So I decided to make my own: I got a starter scoby (the “mother” culture that grows the kombucha) from a friend, bought a slew of large glass jars, studied up on the fermentation process and began homebrewing. A little tweak of the recipe here, a bit more or less water or tea or sugar there, and voila! I have a veritable cottage industry of kombucha at different stages of readiness, in mango strawberry and chai flavor, hanging out in my kitchen. I’ve even grown to like it as much as the bottled stuff and it’s like ten cents a serving. Problem solved.
Damn pesky things, though, addictions. It’s like that whack-a-mole game: you take care of one and another crops up right away. I have an on-again-off-again relationship with coffee and can go months without before starting to crave it out of nowhere. Several weeks ago I had a rare luxury of five minutes to myself and I stopped at a coffee cart in my neighborhood. It’s a tiny little place in walking distance from our house. The woman who greeted me was friendly, conversational—I found myself telling her my story of moving from D.C. to Colorado to Irvine to San Diego within the first two minutes. The single-cup drip coffee was amazing. Plus, it’s a genius business strategy: it takes about five minutes to brew a single cup, and the fixings are all behind the counter. So they chat it up with the customers while brewing cups – several can be done at the same time – and then they add cream and sugar to your taste. You feel so … taken care of. Also, it turns out that the two women, Sam and Maria, owner-operators, are both really hot. I’m not a guy or a lesbian, but who doesn’t like hanging out with beautiful and attentive people who make you great coffee? So what that it’s $3 a cup plus a friendly $1 tip?
Oh, wait … I do.
I’ve been back to the coffee cart frequently, though not everyday. This week I’m keeping it to two visits: two cups of fine, strong coffee; two times to bask in the glow of Sam and Maria’s care. That’s only $7. I know, I know. $7 that could and should be spent in another way, or not spent at all. But there’s one more thing: I’ve learned valuable information about the neighborhood and the community while hanging out at the coffee cart. The customers seem to feel an affinity for each other, to share a secret and thereby become instant comrades. I’ve learned about good restaurants, small businesses and overheard a bit of gossip here and there. It’s a third space, a needed one.
So perhaps I’ll buy myself a French press and make my own coffee at home most days. But a few times a week I think I’ll keep going back to the little coffee cart. Budget be damned.
As a mother of little kids, one is interested – engrossed, really – in what goes in and comes out of them. Eating, drinking, peeing and pooing are of paramount importance, and for a time that’s about 90% of parenting. Slowly the sphere of awareness widens as you begin to take your little baby out into the world, but still, the worries are an extension of input/output: is s/he warm enough/cool enough? Is she safe in the stroller? Is that toy chokable?
Parenting, in the beginning, is really basic stuff. The rub is that as they grow, more and more layers are necessarily added on to your initial concerns but you still have to worry about input/output, too. In other words, parenting little ones through toddlerhood is both physically laborious and emotionally taxing. For instance, I still monitor everything that comes in and out of them, but I also have to convince my older child to pee even when I can tell he’s holding it in with great effort, or to wear anything else besides his Captain America costume. Everyday I am engaged with him to wear this, take that off, don’t touch that, hold this, please be careful, pee there, no not there!, etc. But I also worry about his feelings and emotional development, about whether to intervene in a playground dispute or allow the children to work it out for themselves. I worry that I’m stimulating him too much or too little; that he watches too much TV; that he’s not independent enough and gives up too easily in the face of difficulty; that I simply don’t have the quality alone time to spend with him since I have a baby now, too.
And even beyond all that, I want to make sure that I really see my children for who they are. That I don’t become so preoccupied with the very real and very necessary story of input/output that I miss their light. Right now my son still shares all that he finds fascinating with me, and sometimes I don’t share his fascination. It’s easier to focus on getting him dressed and fed than it is to play “construction site” or “scary Halloween room” – two games he made up – for the umpteenth time. It sometimes feels like my agenda vs. his agenda and of course my agenda is important—vital, really. But probably, his is too. And I hope that I give him that sense. There’s a balance, of course. I just hope that I’m striking that balance – if not everyday, then on the whole.
Since moving to San Diego my son, daughter and I have cycled through about four colds and flus. We pass it from one to the next, to the next, to the next in our family—except to my husband, who has strangely – but happily – been immune. I’m thinking that any day now we will be scot-free, having already had every bug out there. Right now we’re working on the sneezing, coughing, sore throat, headachy, yellow snot variety. To add insult to the injuriousness of it all, when we’re sick we just don’t sleep.
The thing is that I’m kind of a finicky sleeper. But I’m also someone who does poorly on little sleep, and this is a bad combination. I’ve known people who can only sleep with white noise, or if the room is 68 degrees – neither of these is my issue – but who seem to act like normal humans even without sleep. I, on the other hand, operate like a high functioning zombie—not the flesh-eating kind, but the kind that has virtually no mind nor memory. The kind that drags herself around without sparkle or even competence: who puts salt in her coffee or forgets to strap her kid into the car seat. I have never actually done this, but I’m so out of it when sleep deprived that I’m afraid I will. To top it all off, I have an atrociously put-upon attitude when I’m tired, sick, or both.
So yeah, it’s a real party.
All this personal suffering aside, I am concerned about my daughter, who is sick along with me. She’s had a fever that, though not excessive, has persisted. She’s fussy and her stuffed little nose makes it hard for her to nurse. And I don’t need to repeat the obvious, but I will: she’s not sleeping well! We’re a bit of a mess.
My daughter’s been sick more times in her six months of life than my son was in the two and a half years before he started preschool. After that, all bets were off because, as he started to spend a few mornings a week around other little incubators of disease – I mean kids – he got sick, and brought it all home. Repeatedly.
Unless … this brings me to another worry. Is there something wrong with the environment or the new house we’re living in? Is it in the water? The air? Come to think of it, we have had some work done on the old pipes of the house; perhaps that let loose a mildewing decay, a leady-asbestos-filled-toxic-mold that is sickening – or at the very least depressing the immune systems of – us all. That explains why my kids and I, home most of the time, are sick while my husband is not.
Ahhh, but that sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Maybe it does. But, to other mothers out there, I suspect it doesn’t sound totally off the mark. Or perhaps this particular one doesn’t resonate with you, but you have your own paranoias, right?
I’ve been reading Judith Warner’s book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, where she details the ways in which anxiety has become the normal state of motherhood in our time and place. Where mothers face a no-win situation because if they work full-time they’re absent and selfish but if they stay home their contribution is not valued and their ability to return to meaningful work later is diminished. Where mothers feel an intense fear for their children’s safety and wellbeing—fueled by hype in the media about child abuse and abduction even though, statistically, we have never been safer. Where mothers fear that unless their children are exceptional in every way – perfect athletes, scholars and musicians with lots of friends and a laundry list of volunteer activities – that they will not get into the right college, not get the right job, not make it. And though certain things have progressed in terms of equality between women and men at work and at home, they have perhaps not changed as fast as we assumed they would; mothers still feel a disproportionate amount of the responsibility and fear – both daily and existential – in keeping their families on track, in holding it all together.
I can relate. Somewhere back in the misty past I considered myself a laid-back kind of person; in some ways I still am. But adulthood, graduate school in D.C., and especially motherhood, have all changed me. As I’ve detailed before, working part-time and being a mother in the D.C. area gave me a constant, persistent, strangling type of anxiety. That I would be late to teach or have nothing worthwhile to offer my students. That my son would not eat or sleep while I was working, that he would suffer emotionally and physically from the absence of his mother. That we would not have enough money. That there never seemed to be enough time to do it all. That everything was just on the brink of falling apart and that I was the one who could hold it all together by the sheer force of my remembering to buy milk, keep to-do lists, manage my husband and nanny and son, worry and exercise vigilance about everything from naptime to food intake to online bill pay. It was exhausting. Terrifying. I wanted to control everything and felt like I was the only one who could control it—but try as I might, there were always things that were out of control: the weather, the economy, whether or not we got the flu. I wasn’t a lot of fun to be around—for myself, especially.
I could not go on that way, and that’s, in an oversimplified way of speaking, why we left. But though some things changed with a new environment, some things didn’t. Not teaching at the moment means that the work-related stresses are absent, but instead I get to worry about whether I’ll be able to re-enter my profession when I’m ready, and about getting by – literally by the skin of our teeth – on one salary for now. And I still worry about my family’s health and wellbeing. Plus a boatload of other things, too.
What can we change, as mothers, as women and as people living in a complex and sometimes frightening world about the way we parent, the way we conduct our daily lives, our social contract, our goals and aspirations? I want to live in a world where it’s OK for kids, parents and all people to just be some of the time, not to be in a constant manic state of working, acquiring, achieving and striving.
How can we help ease this competitive and fearful atmosphere in which we live and breathe and parent?
Comments are welcome.
I spent an idyllic day with my family: sleeping in, dressing up, eating brunch, listening to live music, receiving flowers, strolling along the ocean, talking to my own mother. A bit of surprise extra sleep: so needed. Putting on something besides yoga pants and a nursing tank: extraordinary. Savoring carne asada benedict and café au lait: divine. Watching a beautiful young woman sing and play guitar: a treat. Holding large pink roses and a yellow daisy: gratifying. Smelling the sea air and counting waves: soothing. Seeing my mom in real time via the grace and speed of the internet: a comfort.
A few times today I laughed, well and true, from deep in my belly. Once was right away upon waking: my son came to me and said, “Mama we made you something. Come and look.” He and my husband had drawn me a mother’s day surprise in colorful window markers: a smiling sun and flower, a written greeting, and two jumbles of scribbles. “What’s this one?” I pointed to the yellow jumble. “Smoke,” he said proudly. “And what’s that one? I pointed to the blue jumble. “Junk!” “Oh, thank you very much.” “You’re welcome, Mama.”
Happy Mother’s Day to my mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, aunts, cousins, sister and friends. May you receive gifts, such as smoke and junk, that you’ll treasure from your children and grandchildren. Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers out there! May you, may we, feel blessed and contented. May we laugh from our bellies each and every day. Happy Mother’s Day to me!
Today my three-year-old son, faced with a head of purple cauliflower the likes of which he’d never seen, hugged it and said, “awwwww.” I guess he thought it was cute. Today my six-month-old daughter sat unassisted for a minute or more. We called her a “baby sitter.” Our little joke. Today I slept for a good two hours in the middle of the day because I was sick, sick, sick. God bless my husband for coming home from work, and God bless his work for understanding. I was wiped out beyond any hope. But he was there to take up the slack.
When my mother-in-law comes I get to enjoy my children in a way that I can’t ordinarily—I’m so busy taking care of them. All day we play a sort of relay race where we hand off kids instead of batons: I’ll take this one and run to the park; then I’ll take that one and go grocery shopping; she’ll put this one to bed while I bathe the other. She affords me rare and precious breathing room so I can play with my three-year-old on the playground instead of watching from a shady spot with a baby in the Ergo or stroller. My son wants nothing more passionately than that I climb, slide and pretend we’re superheroes about to save the world, and now that I’m no longer pregnant I am able to do it—mostly just in theory, but for the past two days in actual practice, too. With my daughter I have the luxury of quiet—to nurse her alone, to catch her eye and grin back when she pulls off my breast just for the sake of smiling.
When my mother in law comes I also get to feel smug and superior; I am raising my children with healthier eating habits and more self-reliance. I am thoroughly versed in matters of nutrition and clean eating, and I read books and blogs on parenting strategies for helping kids grow into happy and productive adults.
Perversely, I alsoget to feel shamed and inadequate with her around. I am always eating; she never does. She does all our laundry before I even realize it needs doing; at the end of the day I look at my already cleaned kitchen and wring my hands a bit. She actively encourages me to take time for myself, so I do. I exercise, write, stop for a cup of coffee; yet she reminds me constantly how she raised three children in a foreign country without family or so much as a babysitter. I can feel the unspoken questions, “why doesn’t she want her husband to eat Chinese food and coffee ice cream?” and “how can she expect my poor grandson to put on his own shoes?”
When she is here, my son tragically, somehow, forgets how to do all the things he normally does; he can’t so much as pee on the potty without receiving help—asked or unasked. Which brings me to anger. Yes, when she is here, I also feel angry about ways of treating my son that enable rudeness, lack of personal responsibility, and a horror of trying anything new for fear of getting hurt.
But of course there’s fondness, too. To see my son loved unconditionally by another adult, to see him at complete ease with her is a reward in itself. And I’ve even grown to love this woman who puts up with my fussiness about food and TV and bedtime. She has willingly spent more time with me than with my husband – her own son – since our children came along and has never once complained about the long hours and the general thanklessness of it all. No, instead she gives gifts, offers more help, pays for dinner, brings me extra pots and pans. We’re different people, she and I. We mother differently and will probably never agree on many things. But since we know the differences are there we don’t actually have to talk about them that much. We coexist, mostly in harmony, and, it turns out, work alongside one another quite well. I’m probably not the daughter-in-law she fantasized about but that’s the thing about fantasies; they’re not real. In my way, I am a good mother and wife—with flaws, no doubt, just as she is a good mother and wife in her way. We both know that about one another, and I guess that’s enough.
Becoming parents taxes many relationships, but I have to say that, overall, this hasn’t happened to us. We parent well together; we have a similar outlook on what’s important, we spend lots of time en famille. Instead I would say that parenting has improved our relationship because we are now on a team: us with – though occasionally it feels like us against – our kids. Generally we communicate well around our relatively new – and infinitely more full – lives with the added worries and responsibilities of children. We still enjoy each other’s company and find one another sexy; we act on that sentiment plenty though we don’t actually sleep in the same room.
Yet, still. Having children is stressful. There’s no doubt about it. It can lead to difficulties communicating, so that, even with us, the air at home is strained at times, tense with few words spoken. Or someone, usually me, is artificially chatty in an effort to gloss over or simply forget the hardships that stem from the division of labor we have taken on.
Our weekday lives are so different right now—shared time in the evenings and on weekends diverges sharply from what we are each doing during working hours. We are tied by our children, our home together, our relationship’s past, present and future, yet our day to day lives could hardly be more different. I imagine his typical interaction over the course of the day goes something like this: “Hey there, proposal manager! Have you received the figures and data for the add-ins off the top end of the upcoming project?” To which he would reply something like, “Yes, I’m just waiting for the final round of sign-offs from top management and to check on the team’s bandwidth capacity before sending it down the pipeline,” or something like that. Whereas my typical interaction is something like, “Mama, wipe my tush!” or “I want to play construction site (again!)” or crying. When there’s crying, it’s usually one or both of my two kids. But once in a while it’s me, too.
I never imagined myself in the position of full-time stay-home-mother, yet here I am. Don’t misunderstand, I would gladly take it over working full-time and being away from my children all day. But being with them all day everyday can feel like a special kind of torture, one that is so totally consuming that you forget who you were or what your life looked like before being subjected to it. The parade of needs that they have is truly endless—one right after the other, if I’m lucky. More often than not, they both need something at once; the baby needs to be nursed or held while my son is asking for me to make non-dairy macaroni and cheese, or my son wants to “fly on my shins” while my daughter needs a diaper change. There is only so much of me, and I need things, too.
But this brings me to another point: the fact that there is only so much of me to go around means that I have a hard time making connections with other people – other adults – during the day. When I have had ample quiet time, ample time alone, I am happy to phone friends and family to catch up but when I am with my children so much of everyday I simply can’t. I’m an introvert, meaning that being with people requires a lot of energy and, these days, the main portion is reserved for my two kids. Only if and when there are leftovers of me can I give it to others. So my contact with the outside world is pretty minimal.
Hell, I even used to listen to NPR while driving to and from the yoga classes I taught—a practice easy to follow in the D.C. area, so rich with quality radio stations. Here, the NPR stations are nearly laughable and I have no solo drive time anyway. I don’t read the newspaper and I’ve never gotten used to or really interested in news online. I don’t even have a smartphone (though that’s about to change and I will finally enter this decade), and we have not sprung for cable. So most days I am in a totally newsless, adult conversation-less bubble and, as you can imagine, I pounce on my husband when he gets home, expecting him to be a witty and entertaining conversationalist who is dying to learn about my day with the kids, who hangs on every word, who fills me in on all the goings on in the outside world and his workday, and is, additionally, physically and emotionally demonstrative. Surprisingly, he’s not always in the mood.
I feel guilty sometimes that I find myself zoning out while playing construction site (again!) with my son, or reading while nursing instead of making eye contact with my baby. I love them, how I do! Yet caring for them day in and day out is not intellectually stimulating, and I’m a person who enjoys a healthy balance of mind-body-heart-spirit. My day is physically taxing, though apparently doesn’t burn enough calories to actually lose any weight, and my day is emotionally rich and sometimes emotionally depleting. But a college level psych course it is not. Reading and writing stimulate me and I do a little of this nearly everyday. If I didn’t, I’d probably be so brain dead I’d make a zombie look like a genius. But the actual percentage of my time I spend reading (adult books) or writing is very, very low.
I’m not the first mother to complain that she isn’t being intellectually stimulated by taking care of young children, nor am I the first to say that it’s not working to place most of the burden of her social and mental needs on one person, her partner. Something has to give—but what? I’m not sure if there’s one right answer here; it’s probably a combination of things. I could listen to the radio more, start streaming the best stations. I could force myself to have a real conversation with one other adult everyday, even if I feel I have no time for it. I could harangue my husband to be more communicative — that should work, right? And I will keep checking out books from the library, keep writing, and remind myself that childhood is short. Before I know it my kids will be taking their first college courses, getting their minds blown as mine was back when I was in their place, rolling their eyes at how out of touch and just plain stupid their parents are. But by that point, presumably, I’ll be able to go to the bathroom alone and call my friends when I want to. Everything’s a trade-off.
Yesterday my three-year-old son was in the bathroom peeing on his potty. When he came out he was holding one of the screw tops to my contact case, saying, “Mama, a cap fell into my pee but I took it out. Don’t worry,” he said reassuringly, “I washed my hand.” I had to hold back from bursting out in laughter—I mean, sure, it’s gross but so funny. “What did you wash your hand with?” I asked. “Toilet paper,” he replied. To him, that problem was solved. Over and out.
Hours later, and a few washes and rinses of the cap after that, I was taking off my contacts for the night and thinking about how, in a strange way, what he did and said belies a growing maturity. My little kid is growing, talking with more sophistication and starting to reason, figuring out ways to take care of himself, learning how people communicate and interact, what sort of behavior and courtesy are needed in the world. I laughed and, this time, because I could let it out, it was for real. This may sound strange, too, but I felt really proud of him.
A home sustains the life of a family, and in my quest to create a home and a life for ourselves – a quest that has taken us across the country and in and out of radically different places and lifestyles, I have had the naïveté to think that a home is something we make solely by ourselves. It is not. A home, of course, is not just a place of residence, though it includes that. A home is a house or apartment or mansion or cabin or grass hut – the four walls, if you will – as well as many other things. It’s made up of the place it’s situated—dry, desolate mountain or flat, plastic landscape, tropical haven, urban wasteland, or one of the other myriad geographies found in this country and on this planet. A home is also what’s in it and how that stuff is used, the accoutrements and props upon which we create and sustain our lives. It’s the people: neighbors, business owners, kids on their way to school, passerby. It’s the sense of connection you have to the topographic, material, energetic and human landscape of a place and your reason for being there.
Something I’ve learned is that you choose a home, but in a certain sense, a home also chooses you.
As I look around our new home, one that I love for its quaintness and charm, its new but still imperfect kitchen and floors, its walled garden and comfortable terrace, and even for its thin walls and tiny stature – one that I appreciate in a way that I never could have appreciated homes that were more easily come to – I see not just the fruits of our own ongoing efforts here but of all the people who have contributed consideration and sustenance and stuff to it. So much of what is here has been lent or given: the bird feeder and golden yellow lights strung up on the lime tree in front were left by the owners; the gray leather couch and kitchen implements come from my mother; the dining room table, bookcases and futon that I sleep on with the little one are brought from the home of my in-laws; the Persian rug used to sit in the living room of family friends; the pale oak armoire and chest of drawers were graciously handed down from my husband’s brother’s girlfriend. In fact, when I look around our new home, there is very little that we owned just one year ago and even less that we bought new.
Dish rags, a toy organizer, lamps, odds and ends—those have been recently acquired from a store. But so many of our baby accoutrements are valuable hand-me-downs, or else found used off craigslist, brought home, scrubbed and blended in with what we already had. The other day my husband and I were walking home and spied a box outside a neighbor’s house labeled “Free.” We rummaged and came up with a wrought iron candleholder that’s now on the mantel and, astonishingly, a cable for our Blu-Ray player that we were literally about to order off the Internet. The phrase, “ask and you shall receive” comes to mind; in this case we hadn’t even verbalized a request for such a thing, but the Universe is indeed bountiful. Does that make us dumpster divers? Not technically, but in spirit, I would have to say yes.
Our truest gems are four of my grandmother’s original paintings, given or lent – I’m not sure which – by my mom. They are abstracts, bold and bright, executed with her cultivated and once steady hand. They instantly upgrade the place and help give the impression that real adults live here.
What we have is a mishmash of styles and periods, a bunch of cast-offs mixed with a few things anyone would be glad to own. But at the moment it’s all ours, part of what makes our home our home—and I wouldn’t trade any of it.
How I treasure mornings alone with my daughter. In the early hours, I am awake when she wakes, usually by 6:30. I nurse her and drift in and out of sleep a while longer while she coos and moves her arms and legs. Those few minutes of rest before leaving bed – even when I wake exhausted from a night of continuous nursing – give me the strength and, more importantly, the heart to rise and meet the challenges of the day. Then we are up, engrossed in the hustle of getting my son dressed and fed and sending him off to preschool, lunch in hand. On the mornings that my husband takes our son to preschool, the baby girl and I are then alone for a precious few hours – if I have no errands to run or groceries to buy – at home.
Such a sweet time, 5 months old. Her face is round, cheeks huge as mine were at that age. Her eyes, bluish with dapples of green, crinkle up when she smiles or laughs. She can sit for a long time with a little support, or by herself for a few moments before toppling over. While I make my own breakfast, she plays in her high chair and smashes spears of banana or soft cooked apple I’ve laid out for her to explore. After breakfast we play together a bit more and then she takes a nap and for the first time in a long time, perhaps the only time this week, I am alone at home. It’s not inviolable time, of course, liable to end at a moment’s notice if she wakes early or something else comes up. But it is time for me—time to write, usually, unless I let myself stray off course with the myriad other tasks that fall to me: straightening up the house, cooking, catching up on phone calls or bills, planning my day and week with the two kids.
I enjoy the quiet so much, and not only because it contrasts with the clamorous babel of a four-person household. As an only child, I have always appreciated quiet and time alone—something neither of my children will know in the same way. But being an only child has many other, less desirable effects and consequences and I am happy to be giving my children the gift of one another. Of course, they don’t enjoy the full benefits of a sibling yet because they are so young, but their ability to interact is growing daily and I know it won’t be too long.
Back when I had only one child I thought it was a full-time job, and it was. But with two, the work and the worry only double, perhaps until a certain age. The benefit to a child of having a sibling around at all or most times – someone who is as interested in play and imagined worlds – cannot be counted. I was as a child, and still am, an introvert—perhaps by nature, but certainly propelled by nurture. And while there’s a rich inner life for those like me, it can be hard out there for an introvert. I want for my children to be who they are naturally meant to be and to be flexible so that they may feel equally at home with others and with themselves.
One day they will have each other to wake up with early on a Saturday morning, to make forts out of the entire living room, perhaps even to confide in one another the struggles of adolescence and young adulthood. Then, of course, I will be left with more alone time than ever before and will inevitably wish for a return to these very days of being consumed every night and day by my children’s needs. Until then, I will take my moments alone, few and far between, but needed nonetheless.