4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
Lately I’ve been remembering the words of a woman I used to work with. She’d been diagnosed with one of those illnesses that takes away your ability to do what you are good at little by little and all at once. I had come to that school to fill in for someone who had taken a sabbatical year, and at the end of that year I was looking for a way to stay on.
Her job wasn’t like any of the jobs I’d done at schools, but they were looking for someone who was a good writer and who likes to help people. And so they dug out an old desk and moved me into the corner of her office. I would listen to what she did and then ideally would learn to do it too. No one had said it directly, but we all knew that I was preparing for the day when she might change in precipitous ways, and I would step in and become her.
We worked together in this odd way for a few years, almost literally cheek to cheek. She was sharp-witted and spoke directly, and I always felt there was an extra weight of wisdom to what she said because of the place she was in her life and the experiences she’d amassed.
I’ve always been known for trying to get a little too much done each day, putting too much on my plate in the metaphorical sense. My mother will still say to you, “That’s Jennie! Burning the candle at two ends!” This falling short from my absurd goals always leaves me frustrated, like I’m never quite enough. It has been the number one criticism, although also a backhanded compliment in its way, from every person I’ve worked under in my years teaching and working in schools.
“Jen,” this woman said to me, “you can only ever really do five things well at any time. You can only ever be good at five things. ”
I hated the advice. It went against everything that I do and the way I value myself as a contributor on every level.
A few years later, I helped bring Rachel Simon, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister to our school to speak. In truth, by the time she came onto our campus I realized that her book rubbed me the wrong way. She told the tale of riding public transit buses with her sister, who had pronounced intellectual disabilities. Her story came off as snide to me, mincing. But the thing that annoyed me the most (besides her continued insistence that she looked like Andie MacDowell) was that she said that most siblings of people with severe disabilities are over-achievers, that we’re less likely to have children ourselves, that we never feel like we’re enough. (Damn her, and her tiny bit of truthiness.)
When this colleague and friend told me I could only do five things well, I struggled to hear what she was saying. I enumerated on my fingers the things I wanted to do. Be a good wife, be an artist, start a family, be a good teacher, make jewelry to sell, run a marathon, spend time with friends, be a good daughter, and so on.
“But I’m doing all these things,” I told her.
“But you’re not doing them well,” she replied. She was always a straight shooter, that one.
The idea that there is a finite amount that we can do well, that was a revelation that stayed with me. I had always seen myself as a sort of spring, with an infinite supply of water. If only I scooped the water fast enough, tried hard enough, I could fill every single cup forever. I could be the spring for all the drought-stricken wells in my family. It was maybe even my duty.
But there she was, pointing out that I was a pitcher with only enough water to fully fill five glasses. Be a great mom, be there for my husband, make art, stay fit, write a book, done.
This is a long way of saying that I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) which begins next month. I have a small group of writers who I will see once a week who have also signed up. I hope that looking at their young inspired faces will keep me feeling just uncomfortable enough that I will write a lot of something every day.
I tell you this because I’m hoping that two or three or ten of you will then ask me at the end of November how my writing is going. I want to be beholden to you, too. But I also tell you this because it means I might not blog so well next month. Also I might not get any housework done so if you’re in my mudroom, just look away. I may even gain a few pounds in unsavory places. I won’t be able to keep watching a nightly episode of Ray Donovan in order to catch up to the current season. Yes, I may fall behind in all sorts of utterly unforgivable ways.
The woman who gave me that advice so many years ago moved with her husband to California, someplace beautiful and warm she’d always wanted to be. A couple years later I left to become a stay-at-home mom with my newborn preemie twins and toddler son. We don’t communicate directly, but I like to picture her gunning her way through yoga poses, finding balance by the ocean, no matter how her strength ebbs. I like to imagine her sitting with her husband, being a grandmother, being mindful, breathing deeply. (Five things.)
Maybe what my friend and colleague was saying was that less is more, or that perhaps we need to be more forgiving of ourselves when we are stretched in too many different directions. We need not be everything to every person, you know? We don’t always have to be excellent. Not me. Not you.