Friday, November 15, 2013
In Fortune Magazine this month, there is an article about the 50 most powerful women in business. Reading it makes me feel as small as I feel when I browse the pages of Pottery Barn Kids, and wonder if I've made my children's childhoods meaningless by depriving them of a boat bed with matching everything. How do these women do it, seriously? How are they mommy's and wives and superpowers all in one? How do they get away from their families long enough to make a difference in the world? Who takes care of their kids when they come down with pneumonia? Alex gets pneumonia at least once a winter, and he is, right now, lying in bed after 10 days of coughing out the pneumonia that settled into his right lung. Who would stand with him in the steam shower if I were out being powerful in the world? Who would open the Kleenex to examine the yellow gunk he coughs up between bites of bacon if I were not sitting at the breakfast table? I am in such demand these days that it took me three tries to get my flu shot at Costco. The first two times Alex's school called to tell me he was having a pre-seizure headache and I needed to drop everything and get over there. On the third try, I pretended to be related to the elderly man in front of me, snuck in front of him in line, and snagged his shot before racing off to retrieve one of the children. I could almost hear a sneer from the long flu shot line, "Soccer Moms, you are all the same!" Over the last six years, I have held an internal emotional battle with myself for feeling occasionally dissatisfied with being at home with the kids and not out being something else in the wider world. The other day Izzy said to me, "Really, you worked, Mommy? You really used to work?" Yes, yes I did, once. "What did you DO?" I thought about that one since I didn't really want to lie to the kids, but we don't exactly discuss my previous career. Alex was there too and he was equally as interested. "Mommy used to be Wonder Woman in her younger days, but I gave that all up to be your Mommy." Both kids burst out laughing, proud and completely convinced that I used to carry a golden rope that made everyone tell the truth (if ONLY!). I told them it's our secret, and so it is, and we don't tell anyone else about it. Once in a while they will ask me if I ever did this or that when I was Wonder Woman and of course, I did! The ultimate threat to my children when they misbehave is that I will go back to work and they will have to stay with a nanny. The idea of losing Mommy to the outside working world is simply unimaginable, a nightmare (or nightmirror, as Izzy says). I was feeling particularly argumentative with myself after browsing the Fortune Magazine article and I spent some time looking at the pictures of these women and wondering what it was that made them so powerful. It is hard to read that from a picture. And then last night, as I snuggled next to Alex at bedtime, he suddenly shot up and announced, "Mommy, wake up!" His sudden outburst sent a dozen scenarios racing through my mind. Was he having a seizure, about to vomit, having trouble breathing? "I won!" he shouted. Then I wondered if he had lost his mind. "I won, and you are right, kindergarten is like a game of chess." Then I remembered our conversation from that morning at breakfast. Alex has been very frustrated that his teachers harp on him in the morning to unpack his backpack. He's always the only one not ready for class to begin, because he sits there, bundled up in his mittens and hat, with his enormous backpack sitting in front of him blocking his view of the teacher. He sits and he waits, and he daydreams and eventually, his teachers get after him and he wants to cry. So, I suggested he preempt their admonitions by unpacking before they have a chance to get after him. "Kindergarten is like a game of chess," I explained to our little chess champ. "If you know what moves the other pieces are going to make, you can preempt those moves and go after the king and win." And so he did, and now he wins every morning, and there are no more tears, and in fact he has begun to apply the chess analogy to everyday life. I'm sure Sheryl Sandberg has put a few kings in check mate. I wonder how many she snagged from the kitchen table, in her pajamas. Well, she's a mom, so maybe she's snagged a few at breakfast, too.
Today I read a story in the New Yorker about a woman who lost her baby at 19 weeks gestation. He was born on the bathroom floor of a hotel in Mongolia. The mother, a writer who was traveling on assignment, held him briefly, alive and wriggling, and hugged him as he slipped away in her arms. For one magical moment, she was a mother. This short life in her arms changed her, forever. She fell apart, her marriage crumbled, and her grief filled the quiet places of her solitude. Grief, like death, is suffered alone. Before I had children, I'm sure I would have felt very sorry for the mother. I would have said, as I always used to say about these kinds of things, "Well, it wasn't meant to be..." But so much has changed since I slipped my index finger into the palm of Alex's hand, just long enough to tell him, "Mommy's here, Alex, everything's going to be okay," before they swept him off, already intubated, into the dungeon of intensive care. I no longer believe that things were meant or not meant to be. I believe that there are times when the cosmos is off balance and things are not as they should have been. As I read the story, I could see where the tragedy was leading, and I kept thinking to myself, "No, no this isn't going to happen. The story is NOT going to end badly. There's going to be a happy ending. There must be." Watching the tragedy unfold was almost too much to read. In fact, I skipped parts. It was like watching the movie I replay in my head of the day I set out for a walk in the woods with our horse and the dogs. I want to skip parts, to believe it will end differently, to hope that if I just close the magazine, I won't have to get to the end, and I will never have to know what really happens. I won't have to feel the tug of the horse's lead line as he rears, or rethink the logic behind my letting go of the line so as not to be pulled to the ground, or listen to the sound of the hoof as it embeds itself into flesh and fluid, or experience again the instant panic when I knew our lives had changed forever. If I just close the magazine, the end will never come. I was reading the New Yorker piece today, sitting next to Izzy, who was watching the Nutcracker Ballet for the 100th time on the iPad. She is obsessed with her tiny mouse part which she will dance in her first performance this December. She dreams big, and her immense talent makes the dream seem less like a dream and more like a movie's opening scenes. She prances around the house with grace, leaps into my arms lightly, then lands and twirls. Alex joins in and he twirls and he leaps and he lands like a foal in my arms. His arms and legs flail and his dead weight strains my lower back, and I tell him he's awesome. I need to steady him for a few moments before I send him on his way around our kitchen island. If Alex had been born healthy, I would not be home with the kids in the late afternoons, to watch cotton candy sunsets settle over the marsh behind our house and dance the the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies. No one chooses tragedy. But not all the bad is always bad, or only bad. I wonder if the writer of the New Yorker piece wrote with such depth before her tragedy. I wonder if I would be as in love with being my children's Mommy if we hadn't all suffered so much from the hoof of a horse, or the poor judgement of the Mommy. There's no part of my past more interesting or important than these afternoons, catching Alex and Izzy as they leap into my arms and twirl away and come back again. I can still feel them in my arms when I fall asleep.