Finding Me

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It is 8:49 on a Sunday morning. By all accounts I should still be in my ducky pajama pants. But I am not. I am up and showered. Already, I am so overwhelmed by the list of tasks running through my head that I am literally crying as I dry my hair. Which is completely ridiculous. Phil said he would watch the kids but instead he fell asleep in their bed and they came running into our room. In the past two hours I have already done a load of laundry, some dishes, and explained adoption (thank you Disney channel and Jessie for that important but also difficult to explain episode). All I want to do is write out my feelings but there is a Barbie, a screw driver and one Spiderman walkie talkie on top of my laptop. They are symbolic gifts from each member of my family not so subtly reminding me of who and what comes first.

I know this feeling. I’ve felt it before. It comes whenever I get so overwhelmed by the tasks of my family and of life in general that I forget the loving them part. The how to love me part. That I forget that if I don’t start to love me a bit more, I am going to drown. I mean I literally won’t. It’s not as if we are living within a giant pool. But this is how I imagine it feels. You are sinking underneath slippery and moving parts. There is nothing to hold onto. You can’t quite catch your breath. Things like water which normally feels light, suddenly starts to feel heavy.

My husband gets the kids dressed in matching Jets football gear. This annoys me on many levels; partly because I have been trying to get Ruby to wear that Jets shirt for a full year but only when Daddy the magician suggests it, does she finally want to put it on. She wears it proudly. Dylan and Phil are in matching football attire and they all bound into the room and ask if I will take their photo together. It feels like they are all in on some joke that I am not. They seem so happy, so carefree. So freaking adorable. It bothers me because I want to stay mad at them.

Why do they not have the same ticker of stuff running in their heads? I am looking at them in the midst of this adorable family moment and there is a part of me that is there and another part of me that just has a running list of stuff that has to get done. And I hate myself for that. I feel like a split screen TV. I want to watch the main program, but I can’t take my eyes off that stupid scrolling feed at the bottom of the screen telling me really important things like Khloe Kardashian files for divorce, and Miley twerks with a Christmas Tree. I am having trouble, once again, focusing and prioritizing.

Instead, my own personal ticker reads something like this: I have to finish the kids’ room and start washing the baby stuff and where are their back packs? Did I never unpack them from Friday? Did we get the mail yesterday? Is there still snow gear all over the house? Why do I wash constantly but the laundry hamper is never empty? Can I get the dishes done before my husband’s 87 year old grandmother shows up and starts washing them? How long before she asks me if I’ve hired a cleaning lady? And what about my writing? I need to prioritize that, and my marriage and the kids’ physicals…

And it never stops. Water, sinking, drowning. Phil packs the kids up and takes them for a walk to go get breakfast. I contemplate staying home by myself. There is so much I will accomplish. Which is mostly true. But that overwhelmed feeling will stay with me as long as I stay anywhere where there are constant reminders of my scrolling ticker of stuff. So I hastily pack my laptop and grab my keys to drive 2 minutes away to the local coffee shop.

On the way down the street I pass Phil and the kids walking to breakfast. Yet again, they look so frustratingly adorable together. I slow and roll my window down. In my head I can hear myself saying something like, “Do you want a ride?” or “Can I join you for breakfast?” because this is what I do. I get overwhelmed with life and them and then I get really crabby and take it out on them which is completely unfair. Then when they offer me space to breathe I reject it and jump back into the pool. Which makes absolutely no fucking sense. But it is a rare warm Sunday morning with my family. Why wouldn’t I want to have breakfast with them?

In a most unusual break of clarity I catch myself. I know if I stay with them I will keep sinking and the rest of the day they will only get the muddied and wrung out version of me. So for the sake of all of us, I just wave and keep driving. I am not sure if this is the right decision. I leave my adorable family in the rearview mirror. I drive to go find me. To pull me out and separate me from the list of crap and chores and to dos. Just me.

It is 9:41. I found me. She was at Starbucks with a decaf latte, an ice water, a bacon sandwich and her own thoughts. I am finding it much easier to breathe and I do so slowly, deliberately. I spend a few minutes with my own thoughts. It is the breakfast of champions; or at least of overwhelmed mothers who forget how important it is to champion themselves once in a great while.

I Became A Mom And Forgot To Go To France. And Wyoming. And Pretty Much Everywhere.

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They’re coming home for the holidays in search of a warm bed, homemade meals, and play time with their faithful dog, Benjamin. So I’ve been thinking…maybe I could leave town for awhile.

I love my two kids with all my heart. It’s just that while they were away and going through roller-coaster changes, I’ve been going through some changes of my own. And they have no idea. Why should they? They’re focused on becoming more independent, learning, making new friends. That’s why they’re in school. To them, I’m Mom, and I’m always here, in this house, being a mom.

But what if, while my sons have been away, I rediscovered some of the things I used to like to do, but haven’t had time to do, until now? What if, while they’ve been away, I considered some new roles and new career paths?

What if I discovered that I enjoy having less responsibility? Does that make me a bad mother?

My house looks different, runs differently. I buy small containers of laundry detergent, run the dishwasher twice a week, cook meals that last for several days, eat breakfast sitting down — and sometimes, that breakfast is one big cookie and a cup of tea.

My closets and drawers reflect the biggest change. The things inside them that sat on shelves for years — that I looked at but never really noticed anymore — suddenly became very noticeable. The kids’ grade-school projects, study guides, pencils, highlighters, rulers and notebooks, I finally sorted through them. The old student directories, the PTA cards, all that high school stuff which they don’t need any more, I tossed it out. I even went through my sock drawer and got rid of the single ones that have been waiting for their mate to turn up for years. The old me would have just moved the socks to the laundry room to use as dusters. But not this time. This time, I threw them away.

And the kitchen drawer with all the tiny and not-so-tiny items inside that had no relation to each other but that I had saved just in case? It’s no longer. And now I’m wondering how many dishes two people really need, and what else I can part with that I once thought that I could never part with.

The exercise machine that was gathering dust has gone to a family with three boys. I’ve reclaimed as my own the space it once occupied. My camera, once my favorite means of expressing myself, is back in business. Over the years, it had become more of a tool to document life, and had lost its luster.

As for schedules, well, I don’t know what homework or which paper is due, or when. There are no books to run out and buy at 9 pm for a class the next day, or poster board, or glue-sticks. The list of to-do’s has gone from spiral-notebook size to little-sticky size.

I do still receive emails from the kids’ old schools about volunteer opportunities. I’m not ready to delete that connection quite yet. It’s all too new, this idea that they don’t live here full-time anymore.

Last night my husband and I watched a movie about a French chef, and I remembered that I forgot to go to France. And Canada, and Wyoming, and pretty much everywhere.

And now the kids are coming home, and I’ve missed them, and the way they call my name. But I’ve missed me, too. And I didn’t realize how much until they went away and I emptied closets and drawers, getting rid of the old and making way for the new.

Last week I pulled out the spiral-sized notebook and began to make family-sized to-do lists again.

So what if, when they come home, I’m a different mother? The same loving mom, but different perhaps in other ways? I know they’ll be different young men. Will we still connect? Will we fall into old roles or ease our way into new ones?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Mommy Syndrome

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A few nights ago, Jeff and I were laying in bed, side by side, on our respective computers. He glanced over at my Facebook page and asked about an old friend, which led to the topic of another old friend and an even more random old friend. “Are you in touch with xxx” he asked? I wasn’t, but I looked her up and, God love Facebook, there she was.

Our jaws simultaneously dropped — she looked nothing like what we’d remembered from 8 years ago when we last knew her. Her hair was glistening and sun-kissed. Her smile was bright and shiny. She was thin and groomed and practically glowing.

“What did she do to herself?” I gasped.

It didn’t look like plastic surgery, and she really wasn’t the type anyway. But, she looked a decade younger, at least. Gone were the sweats that were once her uniform and her hair was actually washed and out of the permanent pony-tail I knew it in. Her previously pasty skin was bronzed and vibrant. Her house looked neat and orderly in the photos, not the disaster zone I remember having coffee in. She was almost unrecognizable.

Suddenly, a light-bulb went off in Jeff’s head. “I know what it is”, he said, like he’d discovered the cure for cancer. “She doesn’t have young kids anymore. Think about it– what do you look like most days now that we’re the ones with the little kids? Look at our house.”

My life flashed before my eyes. The slippers I wear in public and the never-ending yoga pants. The lack of makeup and perfume and scheduled brow waxes. The house littered with crap and bathrooms that reek of little boy piss. I’m her, eight years ago, when I thought she was such a mess.

Is that what people see me like these days? As frumpy and unorganized and just… a mom?

Maybe so.

But, at least there is some good news: In eight years, I’m going to look fantastic.

Saturday Night Dinner

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There is one sure-fire way to tell mothers from non mothers (one that doesn’t involve checking their stomachs for stretch marks, I mean.)

Walk into a restaurant, alone, on a Saturday evening. Go to the hostess stand and ask for a table. When prompted for the number in your party, simply respond, one.

Watch for the hostesses reaction. You will know in an instant if she is or is not a mother herself.

The non-mother will look at you with pity in her eyes. She will wonder if you’ve recently split with your husband or have been fired from a job. Did your mother die? Your best friend get diagnosed with cancer? What has a grown woman done to be eating alone on a Saturday night? Poor, poor you.

She will make small talk as she escorts you to a discreet location in the back, by the restrooms. She’ll ask the waitress to be extra nice to you. You deserve it, after all. You’re dining all alone on a Saturday night.

But, if the hostess is herself a mother, your request will be met with pure envy. A meal with no children’s menus, no bickering and no meltdowns over the wrong mac and cheese. A meal of peace and quiet  and good food and a drink. Alone. A meal with someone else doing the cooking and serving and cleaning. It’s almost too good to be true.

Is it your birthday? Your anniversary? Did you just get a new job? Sign a book deal? Cure cancer? What has a grown woman done to be eating alone on a Saturday night? She’ll ask the waitress to be extra nice to you. You must deserve it, after all.

You’re dining all alone on a Saturday night.

Becoming Invisible

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When my father was a few months younger than I am now, he tried to throw my mother a surprise party.

She was turning thirty, and although she had never been the sort of person who particularly cares about that sort of thing, thirty is kind of a big deal. It signals a farewell to a specific kind of youth and identity, and as my six months younger father cared quite a bit about that sort of thing, he wanted to do something memorable.

He put a lot of work into the party. He invited dozens of people, all of whom were thrilled to come and celebrate my mom- who would never in a hundred years organize anything like it for herself. And as my father was not exactly competent when it came to party planning, he delegated most of the food related tasks to other people. But one thing he did do was order cheesecakes from a local bakery.

He placed an order for a dozen cakes, in a variety of flavors, to surprise his wife who loved cheesecake. Their friends would bring food, potluck style, their friends’ children would play with me and my sisters, and my mother would experience a spectacular thirtieth birthday party.

That was his plan. But in the early spring of 1987, a terrible flu spread through the city of Pittsburgh. The morning of the party he collected the cheesecakes, and the phone calls started coming in. All but three guests, or their children, had started puking and couldn’t come. My dad cancelled the party, and he and my mom celebrated her thirtieth birthday quietly, packing as much cheesecake as they could into the freezer and living off the remainder for the rest of the month.

I was completely oblivious to these events. I was three years old, and my memory of my mother’s thirtieth birthday is that my parents smiled a lot, my sisters and I got My Little Ponies, and the house was unusually clean.

Now, I feel like I understand my parents. Why my father, at my age, would have wanted so badly to do something special. I understand why my mother, at my age, with three children the ages of my children, would go out and buy them presents for her birthday.

I understand how helpless my father must have felt to make one day, any day, all about her. And I understand how much the gesture must have meant to my mother.

Now, I get it.

When you stay at home all day, when your job is your children, life is only about you if something awful happens. If you get very sick, or injured, or you lose a loved one. The only other way to make something about you is for you to make it about you, and let’s face it… nothing saps the fun out of a happy occasion like sitting down with your kids and forcing them to make you cards. The easiest way to be certain you have a good time is to make sure they’re happy. And that’s why my memories of my mother’s birthday involve my new stuffed purple pony hopping up and down on the dining room table.

As I near my own thirtieth birthday, I think about this. I think about my father as he was then,  thickening around the middle, wearing faded blue jeans and subversive t-shirts. I can see his wide smile, his deep dimples, his bright eyes. I can picture him at my age,  as clearly as I can picture him now. He looks like a stranger, or a distant cousin. This memory of him feels nothing like my father the entity, the man who, for me, defined men. But from my memories I can put him together, like a puzzle. These aren’t just images from photographs, not  remembrances of pictures of him twenty five years ago. These are flesh and blood imprints he made in my mind.

But not my mother. I can picture the photographs of her, yes, but no matter how I wrack my brain I can’t see her as she was when she turned thirty years old.

I can see her hands, rolling cookie dough into balls, dropping them gracefully onto a pan. I can see her ring clear as day, and her fingernails, and her wrists.

I can see the backs of her jeans as she walks ahead of me down the sidewalk, the tail of her shirt hiding her back pocket as she pulls out her wallet to give me a dollar for the ice cream truck.

I can see her bare legs laying in front of her on the porch floor, her ankles crossed and a train of ants walking across them. They look like my legs.

I can see her silhouette at the bottom of the stairs, casually warning me to give up my attempts to somersault down to the living room.

I can see the barrette in the back of her hair as she sits at the table.

But I cannot see her face. I can’t assemble these pieces. My mother is an invisible force of nature, a supernatural entity made of love and discipline and constant presence.

I looked at my father when I was a child. I studied him, this person I loved, who lived with me but who’s comings and goings from a mysterious place called “work” carried the weight of disappearances and reinvention. I never had to look at my mother.

I was always confident she was there. Maybe not in sight, but near by. If I shouted she would appear. If I misbehaved she would reprimand me. If I was suddenly scared or hurt or sad for any reason, I could run to her and wrap my arms around her blue jeans and her elegant hands with their narrow wrists and simple ring would run through the hair on top of my head, and her voice would echo from the everywhere of motherhood.

I can hear her voice, my thirty year old mother, but I can’t distinguish the words. It’s a hum that fills the universe, that permeates every fiber in existence, that rumbles through my bones and soothes them. I can hear its cadence.

At thirty years old, my mother was invisible to me.

Now, I am her.

Like my father, birthdays matter to me. I don’t know why exactly, but they do. Superficial, I know, but I still feel it. And like my father, I feel helpless to give this event some kind of meaning. I sympathize with him so much, this twenty nine year old father of three. I understand him.

And I believe I understand my mother. But to me she will always be something of a mystery. No matter how closely my family parallels hers, no matter how similar our struggles and joys and the mundane details of our daily lives, no matter how much I understand her as she is now, I will never be able to put my feet into her shoes and sympathize with her thirty year old life the way I do my father’s.

And in a way, this makes me feel closer to every mother. To every other woman who has been a shadow, an omnipresent force in their children’s lives. To every stay-at-home parent who’s children don’t bother to look at them when they come or go, who rush past and ignore them because they will always be there. It makes me feel closer to them, and at the same time it fills me with grief so deep I can hardly name it.

I am this vibration, this mysterious force. And in my own ethereal, faceless way, I will also be erased from my children’s memories, continuously replaced by the constantly changing, endlessly aging face before them.

In my memories, if I must picture my mother, I see her now. Maybe a little less grey, maybe somewhat thinner, but still- as she is now. Familiar glasses. Familiar lines on her face. Not the slender, black haired twenty-something beauty I know she was.

That girl, that young woman, she is somebody I will never know.

I feel the grief that I have already lost part of my mother forever.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I was the only child so self centered that they never bothered to look up, but I doubt it. I see it in my own children who once stared forever at me unblinking as they lay swaddled in my arms, and now run past without so much as a glance when I remind them to wash their hands or hang up their coats.

Maybe it isn’t turning thirty that bothers me. Maybe it’s losing myself in motherhood. Maybe it’s the fear that I’m already gone, replaced by this ghost who’s voice will soothe my children’s memories, long after I’ve died.

And while I mourn this former me, I am filled with a guilt and a joy so great they bring me to tears.

I have always wanted to be this thing, immortal and benevolent and profoundly loved. Loved until I dissolved into the enormity of the word, until it absorbed me and replaced me with the all powerful phantom caring for every child, every person, with a fierceness so raw and so bold and yet so constant they disappeared into it.

I have always wanted to be a mom.

There’s No ‘Me’ in Motherhood… Or Is There?

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Mother and Child

Something strange and insidious happens when you become a mother. And no, I’m not talking about stretch marks, although those suckers are truly strange and insidious.

The moment a woman becomes a mom — as soon as that screaming, slippery, wonderful, miraculous baby is pushed from her loins — her world suddenly shrinks down to those things that involve her child.

When I was younger, before I had kids, if people asked me about myself, I would tell them all the fantastic things I enjoyed doing, or had done, like singing in clubs around New York City, or jumping out of airplanes from 14,000 feet, or going on national tours with off-Broadway shows.

Now, when people ask me about myself, I talk about my kids. Not that they aren’t worthy of conversation. They are amazing and gorgeous and great and terrific and funny and bright and — oops. See? I did it again.

But sometimes I wonder, what happened to me? The me before kids who parasailed in Florida and closed a club called Tattinger’s in Atlantic City at 7AM, and chased owls and assorted oddly colored bugs in Joshua Tree, and walked on the ruins of the Acropolis.

Not that being a mom is a bad thing. It’s great — except for those moments when you want to rip out all your hair or scream until your vocal chords bleed or drown yourself in a bathtub full of vodka. Motherhood is rewarding and the best job in the world and all of those other clichés you hear. And it’s only natural to talk about your kids and sing their praises to strangers in line at the market or telephone operators calling to sell you something. How can you not be defined by the little hobbit-people who have overtaken your life?

From the birth of our first child, our lives become about feeding and diapering and potty training and fevers and boo-boos, playdates and sports activities and Girl Scouts and crushes, laundry and tantrums and the challenge of avoiding sugar-highs at all costs.

Am I doing it right? we often ask ourselves. Am I completely screwing up my children? Will they need a lifetime of therapy because I forgot to make their lunches today? We measure our personal success by our mothering skills. Was Junior’s Elmo cake as good as his friend Johnny’s Cookie Monster cake? Did I buy the right size sneakers for Bethany? Am I making the proper nutritional choices? Should I cut down their tv/tablet/computer time? Did I miss the t-ball registration deadline? I did? I suck! I’ve damaged little Lucy forever!

This last year, I lost my own mom. She was my best friend and an amazing woman. And her loss made me rethink the definition of motherhood.

As I was writing a eulogy for her, which I later read at her memorial, I realized that the things I spoke of, the things for which I remembered her, had nothing to do with the endless lunches she made for me, nor the stacks of laundry she washed and folded and laid neatly upon my bed, nor the fact that she carted me around to every single activity I took part in. She did all of those things, and for that I am grateful.

But in looking back upon her life, I celebrated my mom for who she was: the avid world traveler, the woman who could reupholster anything, who sang like Julie Andrews, who flew in a fighter jet, who stood on the Great Wall of China, laughed with her entire body, loved martinis and dancing and seared fois gras, who did pull-ups on moving subway trains, and looked like a million bucks — always.

I celebrated her for the lessons she taught me and the emotional support she gave me and the strength and compassion she displayed and her joie de vivre, which were characteristics of who she was as a person, not just as a mother, but as the woman she was before the kids came along.

She was the best mom in the world because she was such a well-rounded individual. She never lost sight of herself. She nurtured her own interests, even while raising four (high maintenance) kids.

Which brings me to the greatest lesson I learned from my mom, which I will share with you:

We should never lose sight of the women we are, the me in all of us. We should keep growing within ourselves, nurture our own interests, strive to reach goals that have nothing to do with our kids. Because our kids won’t remember the times we were ten minutes late to pick-up or failed to wash their jerseys or helped them with their homework or made them chocolate chip pancakes.

They’ll remember the way we smiled and laughed and embraced life. They’ll talk about how their mother had the courage to jump out of a perfectly good airplane — three times. And maybe that will inspire them to have the courage to take risks and live their own lives with passion and enthusiasm.

And if my kids do that, then I will have succeeded in motherhood after all, just by being me.

The Mother Test

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Sometimes, when I go out alone, I like to pretend that I am young and single. Not to pick up strange men or anything, just kind of like a test. A test to see if the word “mom” is invisibly blazoned on my forehead. A test to see if I could possibly pass for young and unattached. A test, just for fun.

Last May, I got to try it out, on one rare day that I took for myself. I got a pedicure, went to the mall and did some shopping, just for me for a change. As I paid for my purchases, the cashier at the Gap wished me a Happy Mother’s Day. Defeated, I left in a bit of a huff. What about me so obviously spelled mother? Could he see the stretch marks underneath my clothes? Was my muffin top a dead giveaway? My wrinkles? The patch of white hair I sport? What the hell was it?! Mission: failed.

It took until I was back at home for me to realize that I was wearing a hand-painted macaroni and yarn necklace around my neck.

But I don’t give up that easily.

So, last week, I was in New York recording the audio version of my book. Just me, a producer and a hot sound tech in his twenties. Again, the opportunity presented itself to not talk about diarrhea, strep throat or the high cost of preventative orthodontics and I was all over it. You know, to be a woman and not just a mother. I pretended to be Carrie Bradshaw circa 2000, and he pretended to be somewhat interested in my book. I was making progress!

And, then, I had to start reading.

“When I finally grunted Lily out, along did come a little something else, but it wasn’t even a blip on the radar at the moment. Actually, being able to piss and shit openly was oddly liberating. Kind of relaxing, even.”

“Mothers think nothing of using saliva to clean our little ones’ faces or openly smelling their bottoms to determine whether they’ve indeed defecated.”

“My midsection looks like a crime scene, purple spiders crawl up my legs, and my once bouncy hair is an undecided mess between curly and wavy… I don’t even want to think about what my vagina would look like after pushing another kid out…”

I think it’s safe to say I failed that test, too.