4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
I stepped outside today and it was what we call nether weather. It was neither cool nor warm, windy or calm. It felt like there was no temperature, no sun, the faintest of breezes felt only because my hair was lifted from around the edges of my face to settle again on the newfound summer wrinkles by my ears.
I grabbed my paddle and board and headed to the water. It was dead calm, hardly a ripple interrupting the glassy, pale gray surface of the water. The tide was coming in, and we were caught midway between the very highest and lowest tides all year, it being a full moon August tide, so much so that the high tide today was predicted to be a full three feet higher than high tide just one week ago. (Ah, that moon that keeps pushing us forward.) The slapping sapphire waves from June were gone and thus the gentle wake from a passing lobster boat on our steel gray calm felt like a welcome thing.
How perfect then, that in my endless inspection of time, that today should feel utterly tranquil, lost between two great extremes, a momentary stillness near the end of summer. The kids have just received their classroom assignments for the coming year, a list of new friends and old, led by an adult who will possibly spend as much time if not more with them each day this year than I will as they perfect reading and math, and focus on invention and freedom, as two of their teachers’ welcome back letters have suggested.
And yet we still have not read to them their carefully written comments from the end of last year, pages upon pages of observations about areas in which they show strength or “emerging” understanding. The shame.
But summer has been like that, a rush to get the girls to field hockey then one boy to lacrosse then to pick up the emerging field hockey players then back to pick up the lacrosse player, sluggish conversations with moms on the sideline in the scorching June and July sun. We have rushed from one beach to the next to sit still and let the ocean wash over our feet, in turns cold, crisp, gentle and crashing, crystal clear and murky.
We made a list of goals and plans for this summer so that we could live with intention. Movies they wanted to see, hikes to take, kayak adventures, one week of day camp, some evenings of lacrosse or field hockey, reading. And we’ve crossed off most of those goals, but still. Summer with a family of six, four kids ages 6, 7, 7 and 9, hardly ever feels intentional.
This time of the in-between has been something that pushes then pulls unbearably hard in turns, making it difficult to move forward, and yet it’s inconceivable to stand still. Yesterday we all went on an adventure, my husband and I running, the kids on bikes. Our youngest had been left behind and was crying, waiting for me, whining in that way she has been doing since she found words five years ago.
As we raced after the others she turned to me and asked, “Mama? What happens if you go away on vacation, and then you die while you are away? How do you go home again?” I’d been only half listening, with an earbud in one ear desperately trying to pay attention to a podcast or summer mix of songs, eager to hear an adult voice for once. But I removed the earbud then and we talked about life and death and bodies and souls until we reached the rest of the family a mile and a half later.
Later that day, my seven-year-old son sat down at the counter as I chopped apples and sliced pepperoni for a snack. I was again only half listening when he asked, “Mama, what is your greatest regret in life?” I turned to him, my mouth working like a fish, suddenly forced into the present to reflect meaningfully on my past.
“I don’t regret any one thing. I guess I wish… I don’t know…” I said, as my mind flitted across a host of mildly regrettable actions. “I wish I had believed in myself more when I was younger. I wish I’d had more confidence in my own voice,” I finished.
He went on to ask me what one thing I would want to do for the rest of my life. Then what one thing I’d want to keep with me for the rest of my life.
Then he walked by his younger sister and punched her impossibly hard in the sternum for removing a sheet strung between two chairs, a fort he’d apparently built earlier in the day.
Because there is that fine a line between being a three-year-old and a college freshman these days. On a flip of a coin, a flutter of wings, the turning of the tide, they go from being a fully realized individual to a toddler and back again.
We finished listening to a book on tape during our journey to the ocean yesterday. It was among the most beautiful books, children’s or otherwise, I can remember ever reading, a story about racism and greed, love and loss, coming of age and death. (It was called Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and it is my gift to you today. Read it.)
They humored me by talking a bit about the symbolism and the lessons, and even as I engaged in conversation about the metaphors strewn throughout the book, it was hard to keep the tears from my voice.
Before long, they cut me off, begging to listen to the next book, a trite story about a girl and her thirteenth birthday and how she really wants a phone. And more freedom on her computer. And also, her ears pierced.
“I like this one better,” one of them said from the backseat a few minutes later. He was like a contrary teenager himself, not willing to delve into the gray, murky beauty of a masterful piece of coming-of-age literature, at least not with his mother and siblings, and certainly not on a long car ride.
I felt betrayed by children more eager to hear about a girl’s desperate desire to IM- LOL OMG MOS GTG (laugh out loud, oh my god, mom over shoulder, gotta go, for the happily naive among us)- than a boy’s coming of age story involving deep universal truths and sweeping metaphors. One is easier I know, a metaphorical earbud in the ear, an opportunity to remain blissfully unaware of deeper truths. But still, I wanted the grown up them just then.
And then last night I sang them to sleep. They mostly chose songs from Grease and Les Miserable, tired of a summer of the same Thunder Road lullaby. And I found myself explaining how Sandy slutted herself up so Danny would like her and how Fantine’s one summer of careless romance left her in a factory (I left out the prostitution part) sending money to her daughter in a workhouse, alas. Unlikely lullabies there.
But it is all par for the course these days. I find we are between the lullaby and the Broadway hit, the chair fort and the existential questions of life, the end-of-year comments and the back-to-school letters. It is a super full moon tide these days, the lowest low (three feet lower than just last week) and of course, the highest high.
It is simultaneously molasses still and cartoon frenetic in our lives. It is August, and soon they return to school and the arms of all the other people in their worlds who help form them, and the moon is pregnant with possibilities, secrets and truths for all of us.