Sunday, October 10, 2010

mothers with children

i had a dream last night that james decided to move to california and take the amazons with him.

i just stood there, baffled and silenced by the audacity, as i am so often. even in dreams, i never have a clever, snappy answer til days later. or for someone else's situation.

in my dream, i wondered what i should do with all the bunny plates. the beige royal doulton bunny plates that the girls inherited from me and my brother, that are, in reality, now packed up in storage. i remember looking at sasha's hard and defiant face as she said, "i'm going," with such finality that it was done already.

i was wondering what i would do with the life i had created that was designed to house and shelter three children (because in my dream, they were children).

it made me realize that as mothers, we are constantly defined by our children. in my dream, i felt i was ceasing to exist without them.

17 years' ago, when i had just returned to new york with a 6 month-old sasha, i was working at calvin klein. i was trying to find a way to house, feed and look after a baby on my own. a young colleague of mine said, "think about how hard it is for someone like ameena, a single mother with children."

i laughed, "how could you be a single mother WITHOUT children?"

when your kids are little, they don't exist without you. they are always touching you, they're attached to your breast, your hand, hanging on your leg. they are kissing you, hugging you, pulling your hair, grabbing your sleeve or your arm, interrupting you.

my biggest fantasies were of just being alone. once after sasha's first sleep-over party (she was six, thus a night of severe sleep deprivation and making pancakes in haze). i left the girls with james and went to stay in a nearby hotel. i took the cheapest room available. i said to the clerk, "i don't care if it's a broom closet with a camp bed, just so long as there are no small children in it." in the movie "date night," the most perceptive mum moment was when steve carrell (dad) asked tina fey (mum) about her weirdest fantasy. and she said, "just walking out of here, walking away and leaving everything. and having some soup and a grilled cheese sandwich without anyone touching it."

17 years' ago, i asked my boss at the time - he had young children - how he managed to juggle everything and be in the office from 9 am til 9pm. he laughed at me. "i have a wife," he said.

oh, the mothers.

when i woke up this morning, i lay in bed thinking of the bunny plates. that no one has used in years. no one fights over which plates they get any more.

15 years ago, when our kids were all in preschool, a friend (with twins the same age as sasha) asked the pediatrician what to do about her two year-olds getting into bed with her every night. he answered, "get a bigger bed. just enjoy it. because sooner or later, they won't want to come near you."

now that the amazons barely want to come near me, i long for the scent of baby skin pressed against mine and soft breath dampening my ear all night. i remember them sleeping wrapped around me like scarves. i remember nights with sasha curled up under my left arm, zarina sleeping on my stomach and rara held on my right. walking up stiff and still exhausted, stumbling towards the coffee grinder.

now that my attention is not what they most crave, i feel like a tent with the poles kicked out. i am shapeless and unwieldy. my shelter is no longer necessary. as a mother, i had always been intuitive. i knew when my kids were hungry or tired, when they needed discipline and when they need nurturing. i didn't need books or lectures, i did what was needed. they didn't question me and i didn't question my abilities.

as they emerge into adulthood, i am uncertain. they push the boundaries much further than i did in adolescence. their mother is not nearly as strict as mine was. all my theories about open communications, about understanding what they were going through, about being patient and allowing them to be their own people rather than part of my identity, have gone out the window. i wish i'd been more disciplined.

of course, it's hard to tell. in a poignant essay a man wrote about his pregnant teenaged daughter in the back of the sunday new york times magazine years ago, he said, "adolescence is a fever. you just have to wait for them to come through it." and then again, in the times in 2004, "adolescence is a fog, a kind of high fever. emotion swamps reason; rumination undermines introspection." it's like looking at a cake at the crucial moment of baking, there's no way to know if one's done it properly until it's fully baked. the proof is in the eating, as they say.

still, when i think about the round-the-clock, often back and soul-breaking work to keep their lives as happy and organized and uneventful as possible (as i could as a single mother and usually, the sole breadwinner), the time and effort seems to have evaporated. as the much-circulated email job description for a mother says, the return on the investment is startlingly ethereal. my family members point out my multitude of errors with lasting impact.

those bunny plates. they must have been a symbol to me. they reminded me of the best part of my own childhood. the beige background was worn and safe and gentle as a cup of milky tea with honey. the old-fashioned english nursery drawings transport me to the life i wanted for my kids. one where they felt protected and fed and loved and happy. one without conglomerate cartoon characters. nothing plastic or fake. (but i lie, we had the much-sought-after barbie plates, too.

i think about my own mother. how much more difficult when it must have seemed when you followed all the rules correctly. when one took the more traditional route and followed established wisdom, and still the children were wild cards.

no matter how hard you try to stay a separate entity from your children, to remind yourself that they are themselves and their choices are not a reflection on you; that you exist without each other; no matter how you try to remember that your role in their lives must be reduced and altered as they get older, it feels sudden and unexpected when it changes.

it's like when you buy the first pieces of baby gear. that baby bouncer feels so crucial, so indispensible and important to get right. you rearrange your living room to accomodate the battery-operated babyswing or the small, perfectly-proportioned table and chairs with a natural, non-toxic finish. it would be ridiculous now to tell anyone - any mother of a young child - that in 14 years or so, you, like the tiny chairs, will be almost irrelevant.

what seems so important will be a minor detail. prepare yourself.

because you can't.

14 or 15 years is such a long time. a long time to fill your house with rubber boots and bicycles and waterguns and freeze-pops and extra mittens. a long time to drive a minivan littered with wrappers and beach blankets.

14 years is not a blink,

it's almost a lifetime

until you're at the end of it.

isn't that like life?