School has resumed and so has my regular 3 p.m. shift behind the wheel, shuttling kids here and shuttling kids there.
One child hops in fresh from the preschool playground. She excitedly chats about a raccoon named Chester who is loose in her school, distributing candy and wreaking havoc. I am pretty sure Chester is a fictional character, but I don’t really know. I am nodding my head at her words, but my eyes are scanning the road as my mind is running through a mental to-do list. I’m just a Robot Mom, moving through the motions, heading to the next stop.
As proof, it takes me a full two-beat delay to process the fact that I’ve been addressed with the question, “Isn’t that so funny, Mommy?” I answer with an insincere laugh. “Oh? Oh. Yes, it is so funny!” Robot Mom has no idea what she’s just agreed to.
I’m only half-listening as I make four-way stops, cross railroad tracks and cover the familiar path of our afternoon. The route takes us past our village grocery store, a playground and our neighbors’ houses, where I barely register that one is for sale and another has a new porch. Robot Mom arrives at a second school where a second child enters the car.
This child doesn’t hop in. He slithers in and assumes the slouched posture of a middle school boy. The banter of conversation is reversed now, with me, Robot Mom, delivering rapid-fire questions that are answered with short, clipped singular words.
“Did you get your notecards handed in?” is met with a nod.
“Who did you sit with at lunch?” is answered with a quick, “The usual.”
“Well, did you at least have a good day?” elicits a slight smile and then an eye roll.
It is obvious to both of us that I am just as annoyed to be asking these questions as he is to be answering them. Exasperated, I sigh, grip the steering wheel more tightly, turn up the radio and settle back into the role of Robot Mom.
An argument ensues between the preschooler and middle-schooler because the preschooler is singing too loudly to the music. The middle-schooler declares that he’s heard this song a million times. Robot Mom stares straight ahead; she’s heard the song a million times too. Finally, a lazy attempt at parental intervention is offered: “Oh, just stop it, you guys. Stop it!” Robot Mom wonders if she even spoke these words aloud or just imagined that she did, because they have no effect. The preschooler continues singing; the middle-schooler continues scowling.
The kid shuttle makes its way to a third school to retrieve a third child. This child is fresh out of her second-grade classroom. She doesn’t slither or hop as she enters. The grade-schooler bounds into her seat with purpose, fastening the seat belt and tossing down her backpack in one swift movement.
“Hi, guys,” she greets us, and without a pause, she begins. “Today I learned about sharks. Did you know that sharks have rows and rows of teeth? Some sharks eat flankton, or is it plankton?” In the rearview mirror, I see the middle-schooler give her a side glance. “It’s plankton,” he offers.
“Oh, good. Plankton. And guess what?” The grade-schooler continues to court her increasingly captive audience. “A shark has 100 babies and it makes poo! Did you hear that? Poo!”
She giggles. They giggle. Then something amazing starts happening: The mood of the car shifts. The preschooler has stopped singing, the middle-schooler has stopped sulking, and all three kids are laughing and squealing at the fun fact that a shark makes poo.
The grade-schooler continues with shark facts as her big brother and little sister happily chime in, and I tell Robot Mom to take a hike. I turn off the music and engage in their conversation. I mostly listen, but when the flow of dialogue allows it, I offer up words of encouragement for all they’ve learned, or how fascinating this is, or just let out a genuine laugh.
In the middle of the hustle and bustle of schedules, bickering kids and carpools, it is so easy to turn into Robot Mom. Now that the kids are a bit older, they don’t need me in the same physical sense that they needed me as infants and toddlers. For the most part, they aren’t going to fall down as they walk up the stairs or choke on a grape.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s beauty in being able to stand up straight for the first time in years and take a deep breath. At times, my mind can get lost in professional or personal thoughts, and that is a real luxury that I’ve missed sorely.
But when my three children are sitting just five feet away from me happily chatting with each other, it is time for me to tune in. This isn’t the time for Robot Mom to simply cruise along on autopilot.
Nothing about motherhood to this point has been on autopilot, so why should it be now? I’ve fought for these children since before they were born. From conception to the womb–in surgical wings and NICU incubators, in and out of appointments for food allergies or speech, physical therapy or an earache–I was beside them, willing them to be here and to be healthy. I have lain awake with them, telling stories to chase the monsters away and nursed away fevers. I’ve sat on the bathroom floor helping them use the potty, and I’ve shown them that a W is an upside down M. We’ve traveled to distant lands together, explored and vacationed. We have also created grand tales of adventure while simply going through our hometown car wash.
While it can often times feel like I’m simply their chauffeur, their chef or their social director, I am their mother. And what they need more than anything else is for me to be their mother and for me to be present.
Rather than seeing a Robot Mom simply moving through the motions, they should feel that I am theirs and they are mine. Together, we are intertwined in both the annoying and mundane and the touching and sweet moments. Each and every moment that we are given together is fleeting and it is a treasure.
Someday, my backseat will be quiet and there won’t be stories from the classroom to share. I will look into the rearview mirror and won’t see three sets of eager eyes willing to meet mine, albeit with a goofy grin or annoyed cross-eyed expression. I’ll be able to play my music as loudly as I want and allow myself to daydream for as long as I’d like.
But for now, that backseat is loud, busy, messy and beautiful. At this age of parenting children, that backseat is just as special, just as important and just as sacred as that rocking chair I nursed them in or the padded floor where I helped them learn to walk. At this stage, the car is our space to inhabit together, and it is a venue for me to give them examples of how they should engage and interact with others.
I’m realistic enough to know that Robot Mom isn’t gone for good. There will be afternoons when I’m exhausted and need a mental break, and I’ll get lost in my own thoughts as Robot Mom assumes the role behind the wheel. But when that happens, I just hope I catch myself in time to tell Robot Mom to get lost, because otherwise I might miss another fascinating second-grade fact about a shark.