I had a pile of ironing to do, so I moved the ironing board to the living room and put Chef’s Table on Netflix, chosen so that the kids wouldn't feel tempted to stick around and watch. But I forgot how interesting it was to me even though I’d watched the first episode months ago. Now I wish there was more ironing…
The day is somewhat dreary and the kids play and bicker and play and bicker. We went to the mall, resigned to not find anything at Sears, and to need snacks and wipes. But I found a swim shirt and swim shorts for Marie-Hélène whom I failed last week when I was responsible for bringing her to her lesson, and lost her shorts. So it is.
I followed the boys around the store, letting them follow their own meandering curiosity. I found a laundry basket for them, the old one being too small and un-aerated. The label for the basket read something about a good place for “close” and since it was made in China I started to think that the writing was dictated over the phone. So funny, I would say, take a picture, post it online, and make someone else smile over the miscommunication. But it’s trifling. The store is closing. Corners are being gathered up signs moved about, shelves coming down. I wonder if they still make a profit with their sales.
I tell Cedric that the store is closing and he says, "Alright, let’s go!" and I laugh and try to explain the pun… It’s closing in the larger sense, the giant no-more-Sears sense. But I’m not sure he understands. William and I continue to follow him around. I pause to pick up stationary. Might as well. We always need sticky notes. There are never enough. Or so I reason.
At the checkout the boys mill about and I’m worried about what they can get in to while I’m trying to concentrate on the transaction and so I sit them on the counter. An older couple passing by asks if they are for sale. I price them at 10 thousand each and then over dishes in the afternoon consider the price I set and the answer she gave… "Way more than that!" So that yes, I am caught in this funny conundrum… The kids have no price, because they are small, loved, and full of potential, and precious to me, their only mother. But there was no IVF, no adoption. They cost nothing to make. Anyone can make a child, even if the individual’s existence has been calculated as a very rare chance when every strange odd is factored in. And then there is that aspect of ownership… What priceless means is that money assigns a value on something that is neither an investment, a payment, or a property. They are immaterial beings wrapped up in skin and clothes like me, like their father, like anyone.
What funny things our children do to us... They make us stretch and grow and turn us into parents. But they aren't really ours either... They're lent us and we foster them awhile and give them tools we think are important for life (or wish we had had) and they go on and find their way and move along time a little further than we'll get.
The French community in Winnipeg abounds in not-for-profit organizations with acronym names. The first acronym the kids get to know is that of the CRÉE, which stands for the Educational Resources Centre for Children. You can find it in the basement of a bulbous brown building in Saint-Boniface. One entryway has a ramp where the kids sometimes roll balls, their steps thudding through the grey-painted plywood. The other entry gives way to carpeted stairs that turn and face the check-out desk and the half-dozen rows of brown bookcases, back to back, full of games, puzzles, books, magazines, and toys, all for lending. The walls have seen bright colours, like lime green and soda-pop orange, but have last been painted a subdued beige. There’s a large play area and two lipstick-red couches for the adults. The centre is staffed with a little team of women who have smiling eyes.
One time we took out a train set. It was the only Playmobil on the shelves and the box was still pristine. “We’re trying it out!” one of them said, “we’ll see if Playmobil is a good addition for the centre!” William was a young toddler at the time, wearing bibs. Cedric was playing with facsimile tools.
We took it home and Cedric scooted it up and down the hallway and when he lost interest, we would put it back in the box, and the box on top of the espresso-finish buffet in the dining room. This particular set had 62 pieces including three little people you could sit on the wagon benches and a conductor with a removable hat. The rubber wheels, all twelve, could detach from their plastic rims. William figured out how to remove them with his teeth. Perhaps Cedric did too, simultaneously. So we’d take back the rubber wheels, they would dry, and then we’d put them back on their rims, and put away the train. I’d hand them their sister’s collection instead, the Playmobil set with the veterinarian, the safari buggy and trailer, the lions and the plastic carcass with sun-bleached bones.
Nevertheless we ended up losing nine wheels… The first family to have confidently borrowed the first Playmobil set from the Educational Ressources Centre was returning it in a pristine box, minus parts. I’d made a contrite offering to google replacements that I never followed-through with, in a defeatist attitude, as a person in denial of disorganization, certain that the wheels could not have rolled out of our medium sized house and that an end to mystery would come with time. And it did to some degree; Christian found most of the wheels in the air ducts. We gathered them and put them in one of the decorative measuring bowls at the end of the hall ready for when we would next visit the centre. Every time I would notice them I heaved a mental sigh of disappointment over the frustrating inevitability.
There are rules of productivity, of organization, of being a good person… In the Manifesto of A Doer the third rule reads: “Follow through. On the big things. On the small things. Create a habit of always following through. As habits go, it’s a good one to have.” It’s advice I imagine my mom would have said to me, and my mother didn’t like excuses. If you started giving an excuse, she’d stop you. But the eighth rule also sounds motherly, and it reads, “What you are doing is hard, but not impossible. Practice optimism.”
Last week I returned the wheels to the Centre. The activity-coordinator took the Ziplock bag and said “I didn’t even know we had had Playmobil!” It joined the other toys on a shelf in the bookcase behind the checkout desk, where lost things are found and returned and await their toy reunion. If the wheels weighed as much as the space and guilt they took up in my head all those months, the shelf would have bowed. If their return had been as important as their loss, coordinators would have applauded and a special notification would have been added to the e-mail newsletter. But like so much of parenthood, it was a banal scene, the submerged part of the iceberg on which floats childhood happiness.
You see, the thing is, the less you do, the less you feel like doing. The moment I stop writing is the very moment paralysis begins. When I’m head in the books, like I was this summer, biking to university and reading and taking notes, my mind was full of thoughts and ideas and I ran about like someone with a basket trying to catch them all. I felt alive.
I’ve read Rufi Thorpe’s essay twice. The first time, it was a relief to recognize myself in the servitude of motherhood. How often I have felt this way. The second time, more recently, I was happy to find in its conclusion the word ‘worthwhile’. Here is this giant tension between art and motherhood, between selfishness and selflessness and I have not escaped. Instead, here I am, so lucky to feel it, to know it, to read women who put a name to it.
No one likes being forced to go slowly, to hold back, to be trained in patience and steadiness. Today I face the tyranny of toddlers who dictate the morning walk, or the trip to a park, and I abandon wish list to-dos, I consciously let go. Being at home is not a bad job. My bosses don’t berate me. The stress is slight and self-imposed. I could go on finding productivity in shopping sales, chopping ingredients, and hopping around, but I soon miss the quiet development of thought. I start to daydream of an empty house, me and a cat, an end of day meal, a materialized husband, and an uninterrupted conversation. For now, all I have are small packets of time like islands of respite upon which I build stories and good habits by the sliver. The days and the course through them don’t change much, but I figure that this is exactly the lesson I need right now. It is slow and the repeated efforts are incremental but already I can see that when I look back the view has changed.
When it comes to relating how your offspring entered the world, few people will sit in rapt attention as you describe the gooey details. But these stories comforted me when I was pregnant and mark milestones in my life.
The first – Marie-Hélène. My husband and I were four years married when I decided to attend university full time and work part time. We were having trouble conceiving and had had a miscarriage two years prior. As if studies excited my fertility, I immediately fell pregnant in September and finished the school year with a big belly. This first full-term pregnancy felt like an adventure where my attention was constantly drawn inwards, as if my body had become an artist’s studio and I wasn’t the artist. I was busy and active and constantly fighting the urge to nap, only to wake up in the middle of a class trying to still look attentive, panicked that I might have drooled onto my notebook.
Christian and I attended the recommended pre-natal classes and as labour loomed ahead of me, I was counting on getting an epidural, if only because I had no idea what to expect for pain, and panicked at the thought of trying to manage it on my own. Labour started on a perfect summer day. I’d had my last day at work and Christian was having his last day at school with a staff party scheduled that evening. I was sitting in the sun on a porch swing when the first gentle contraction came. I walked around the garden, packed a bag, and then when my brother, who rented a suite downstairs from us, came home; he was enthusiastic about the news and helped distract me with a movie. I called Christian before the end of his staff party because I was excited. It had been over an hour of contractions five minutes apart. We went to the hospital that evening and I was only barely dilated. The nurse sent me home to dilate more. This involved a hot bath, lying down, and fist-clenched wishes that pelted themselves against this giant pain that kept advancing. At four in the morning, I was miserable and so we went back to the hospital. The nurse estimated dilation at four centimetres and said “good work mum”. I was admitted to a room where my water broke as I was sitting on a pink exercise ball at the foot of the delivery bed. I requested the epidural and Christian got to see its lovely effects when I relaxed enough to take a short nap.
Saint-Boniface Hospital, where I was admitted for all three babies, is a teaching hospital so that nurses and doctors file in and out of patients' rooms regularly. In and out through contractions and labour that intensified as the sun rose and pushing began. Pushing lasted two hours. Our daughter was born at eleven that day, tiny and delicate with a head like a peony bud. She hardly cried and instead opened her eyes and looked around as if already intently curious. The medical staff called it a textbook delivery.
Magical moment: When we’d attended the pre-natal classes, the nurse encouraged us to touch the baby’s head as it was crowning during delivery. We did, Christian guiding my hand, and it was just as special as the nurse had promised. For a moment the room and the people in it and the discomfort of the situation dissolved and I felt my daughter separate from me who had housed her all this time, her movements inside, now on the very brink of being outside.
Lesson learned: No matter the preparation you think you have done, there is nothing to compare to the overwhelm of having an infant at home for the first time. Christian and I briefly mourned our previous life as a carefree couple and then saw each other through an intense summer of learning to care for a baby.
The second - Cedric. Christian and I were anxious to provide a sibling for our little girl and in the four years that separate our daughter and son, we had three miscarriages. (You can read more about the miscarriages here.) At numerous points during the first trimester we were certain this would be another miscarriage, but the pregnancy continued to progress and I brought to term an active, pointy-elbowed little fish.
In my final appointments with the gynaecologist our boy was persistently head up. A c-section was scheduled on a day that happened to be our wedding anniversary. When we arrived at the hospital the doctor performed a final ultra-sound only to see that Cedric had done a flip and was now properly head-down. We were sent home to await a natural birth. This was a surprise and every day of waiting was hard. I felt unprepared for a natural delivery, made a dash for the bookstore where I picked up Birthing From Within and hired a doula.
It turned out to be a hard and long labour that stalled more than once. The nurse set up an oxcytocin drip and kept increasing the dosage. The attending doctor, my own gynaecologist, decided to pierce the bag of waters and we all had a moment’s divertissement when more towels had to be fetched to catch all the water. Still our boy delayed. In the last hours of labour I took Fentanol, a drug that helped numb the fear of an endless labour. Pushing lasted only fifteen minutes and Cedric was immediately plopped onto my belly for his first feed. Of average size and weight, Cedric was a cuddly baby. He happened to be born on the same day as Prince George, at seven in the evening. Later on the nurse showed us the placenta, examining it with gloved hands, stretching it out like a frog’s throat, and remarking that it had a double membrane. Cedric had lots of mucus at first, but we were quickly discharged to our little home as a family of four.
Magic moment: At one point during the long labour, I was lying on the bed and wondered aloud to the nurse what the urge to push felt like. A little later when a resident was about to check the dilation, I had a contraction and as if a switch had been flipped, the urge to push arrived. It became a capital letter expression in my head.
Lesson learned: Doulas are a good thing, but if I were to navigate the experience again, I would make sure we were a better match. My doula was lovely and no doubt well-intentioned, but our personalities were very different. The short time I’d had to secure her services was a disadvantage.
The third - William. Life was pretty smooth with a boy and a girl. “This is easy” we thought… So we started discussing a third. The pros and the cons, feelings, desires, expectations, and right there in the middle of the discussions, in the middle of days when I’d waver back and forth between what we knew and what we didn’t, ease and unease, I fell pregnant. And the pregnancy stuck. I ballooned to massive proportions and hoped that this baby would be fat and healthy. It was in this third pregnancy that I finally, finally realized that I could avoid feeling awful in the morning if I abstained from cereal and toast and took eggs and fruit instead. As I entered the third trimester, I started thinking about delivery, panicking, really. I found a set of CDs by Belleruth Naparsteck called “Meditations to Support a Healthy Pregnancy & Successful Childbirth” and listened to it at least once a day, waddling around the block, or sitting and napping, or at night before bed. I think she helped to calm my mind, to wrap me up in comfort when my head wanted to separate between two feelings; the insatiable desire for sympathy and the frustration of being a woman not any different from all the other child-bearing women.
William’s labour stretched out for days. I’d be fine during the day, then night would come and contractions would start. I’d time them, hope for a steady pace, then an increase in pace, but they would taper off, or come only in spurts, and the night would go by while I was uncomfortable and impatient. I visited the hospital early on, but there had been hardly any dilation at all. Finally, on the third night of this, the kids already sleeping at their grandparents’, the contractions came on strong and immobilizing. At the hospital, one of the nurses noticed during an examination that our baby wasn’t head down, and went to find an ultra-sound machine to confirm this. A doctor was called and between contractions we discussed options. This was an exciting and completely unexpected twist, and since the doctor was confident about performing a natural delivery, that is what we chose to do. It might not have been a choice had I not already delivered two other babies naturally.
Nonetheless it was considered a risky delivery and so I was prepped in case a Caesarean was needed. I was administered an epidural and eventually wheeled into an operating room. Pushing took about forty-five minutes, slowed because of the epidural which also deprived me of the urge to push. Christian was with me the whole time and would take peeks at the baby’s progress. Natural delivery of a baby who wasn’t head down garnered a crowd of medical personnel. My legs had been tied up and out of the way and hurt for months afterwards. When only the head remained to be delivered, the main doctor took on a seriousness and concentration that hushed the room. I was given a fantastic episiotomy and I felt the forceps go in as if the doctor had taken a soup ladle and cupped the baby’s head and pulled him through. I was sewn and congratulated and the room drained of personnel while Christian went over to look at our son, all purple and fat and lying stomach down on a warming bed.
Magical moment: After I was wheeled into recovery, the nurse came and brought me back William. He had been whimpering constantly and she thought he must want me, so she recommended I nurse him skin to skin. He nursed nearly an hour, steady, gentle, quiet… those moments like a dream while Christian went off to find us both breakfast.
Lesson learned: Recovery had been a breeze for Marie-Hélène and Cédric, but it was significantly less breezy with William. For the first few days back home, I had so much fluid in my body that the tops of my feet giggled when I walked, and for two nights I snored to such a great extent, Christian bought himself earplugs. The episiotomy also needed special care and I regularly had to take sitz baths for relief.
So there’s the happy trio! I am grateful for each one…
In the list of qualifiers that could apply to parenting none seem to capture the non-stop minutiae. The word would have to fit in the gap between little urgencies and the grace-note-filled upward spiral of intermittent progress.
Right now, we have toddlers. Cedric is two and a half and William is one and a half. They’re learning to share – a skill that takes a lot of narration on my part because William has no words. A typical scene goes something like this: there is a toy. Most of the time, the toy is Cedric’s. He plays with it because it’s his idea and William is his audience. Then, maybe he wanders off with a new idea, like an adult, but too young to have the furrowed brow. William who is tired of being audience musters all the speed he can and captures the toy. Cedric notices, sometimes right away, sometimes later, and he defaults to loud protest. I decide whether or not to mediate.
This time, the toy is a wooden truck with detachable parts, screws and nails and tools. The sun is pouring through the window, refracted off banks of snow outside. I subdue Cedric and rock him on the chair, calming his intensity, breathing in the smell of his hair, grabbing it like a fistful of straw.
“It’s William’s turn, I know it’s your toy, but we have to share, it’s his turn, just a little while longer, just wait while he plays, I know… but we take turns…”
He’s still protesting, more quietly, still insistently, like someone who exchanges a sledgehammer for a rubber mallet, still knocking, knocking, knocking.
I’m answering a text from my sister. We’re working on a project together and I’m excited about it, my attention is divided between this project and my professional motherhood. There is knocking… Cedric is still knocking, a rubber mallet to my brain,
“It’s my truck!” he complains in litany form.
I lose patience. I declare a time-out. I get up and sit him in the hallway, on the shiny dented honey hardwood floor, and punch in two minutes on the microwave.
I return to the living room and William’s diaper needs to be changed. It’s reflexive. I gather him up and we pass Cedric on the way to the bedroom where I tackle the smell in a flurry of wipes. The microwave sounds, the minutes are up and so I call Cedric to the bedroom and we reconcile our differences. He leaves me to the buttons on William’s suit and finds the chalkboard in his sister’s room. William, clean and free, joins him.
It’s all forgot, like a string unknot and I bless the silence and resume the phone. I hear the scratching of chalk. Scratch, scratch, scratch, it fades into a quiet hum, but then there’s a crunch, and another one. I hold on to the hum, I don’t want to let it go… A few minutes later William comes to me, his stiff toddler legs belly-propelled… His mouth is dribbling yellow chalk. The crunch of yellow chalk was the price of the hum.
I know how fleeting the days are, the interminable ones I live and forget. I’ll soon reach a point when I’ve forgotten the adorable and the annoying parts of toddlerhood with only a brief glimpse like a buried memory coming to surface when I’ll feel heartbroken for a moment. But my present self is always telling my future self to relax, that I really am doing the best I can right now, no regrets. This crazy time with every minute accounted for, the boredom and the urgency pulling at two ends of me. It’s made me expand – like the Incredibles, I’m becoming the elastic mom.