Growing up, I knew what I wanted to be when I got older: Anyone but my mother.
Lest you think that my mom is some kind of monster, she’s not. Nor has she ever been. When I was little, she baked banana bread, spent time volunteering at a nursing home and took my siblings and me to all of our after-school events. My mom is compassionate and cares about people deeply. She makes a point of asking the grocery store checker and her hairdresser about their kids by name.
The problem with my mother’s life, as I saw it, was that it was ordinary. I viewed her life-as-mom days as humdrum, boring. She had no pressing conference calls to get on or urgent meetings to attend.
To my young eyes, my father had the glamorous life. He had an office with, wait for it, a swivel chair and employees. When we telephoned him at work and he wasn’t available, his secretary took a message. Sometimes my dad traveled for work. He claimed that going from meetings to hotel and back again was dull. But how could that be when he came home with luggage that included hotel packages of shower caps and tiny bottles of shampoo — the holy grail of travel goodness when you’re a kid.
His life was the life I wanted.
After college, I went to work for a Fortune 500 company. But corporate life — despite the swivel chair — fell flat. So I went to law school. For many years after, the courtroom was my domain. I came alive in there. My pulse quickened when I voir dired a jury or cross-examined a witness. The pace was sometimes exhausting, but the kind of work I did, and the people I did it with, made it worth it.
Then I had kids.
Home became the focus of my life. Children are inherently needy and mine are no exception. Each of our three kids at some point has required some medical intervention, and I have almost exclusively handled the many medical appointments and the accompanying litany of paperwork and insurance headaches.
To accommodate that, I went from doing full-time work to doing part-time work to doing freelance work. A flexible schedule meant that everyone’s needs could be met, except that I now often had a hard time meeting my own. Instead of having dedicated work hours, I worked in dribs and drabs.
When people oohed and aahed over my supposedly enviable schedule, sometimes it was all I could do not to bare my teeth and show my fangs. The people I loved most in the world, my children, alternately were drowning me and draining me dry. Even on days when my husband’s hours extended well beyond the proverbial 8-5, I begrudged him his start of day and closing bell. I was a girl who once knew how to “get’er done” but now my days were splintered starts and fractured fits. My vision for my life, and the way I saw myself, were unraveling. I was a woman come undone.
The solution to my mounting frustration, I was sure, was better time management. I’ve always been an early riser but I got up earlier and then earlier still. But the result wasn’t that I had more time to myself, it was that the kids woke earlier too. So I fled the house. One morning when I arrived at a local coffee shop bleary-eyed with laptop in hand only to discover that the place wouldn’t open for another half an hour, I sat in the car all but weeping. Sure I could use that time to drive elsewhere or compose my thoughts, but those precious moments felt squandered. How was I supposed to get traction when my wheels were stuck in the mud?
Around this time, a new neighbor moved on to our street. She stopped one day and introduced herself, telling my 7-year-old son that she had a child about his age. He loves to play basketball, she said, extending an offer to shoot hoops. “But come later in the evening,” she said, “otherwise we won’t be home from work yet.”
“I can probably come,” my son agreed before offhandedly volunteering, “My mom doesn’t work anymore.”
The only thing that kept me from clobbering my kid was the presence of this new neighbor. She looked like she would be a credible witness.
When I calmed down, the epiphany came. My children saw me as I had once seen my mom: All parent, no person. Life had come full circle.
My first instinct was to lecture my son. Can’t you see how hard I work, I wanted to say. Don’t you see that motherhood isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be?
But I didn’t say any of these things. Instead I thought of my own mother and something she once said. “I know why some animals eat their young,” she’d told me. At the time, I thought she meant that small children were loud and seemingly ever-present. Now, I realize that she meant that kids — even grown ones — are often oblivious and ungrateful and that you love them not despite it but because of it.
With those eight words, my mom taught me unconditional love.
Jessica Graham is a freelance writer and mother based in California. Find her online at inpursuitofloud.com.
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