Lately, and by lately I mean the past two years, everything seems to be an “in-between” time. We get up, cereal is poured, the sweeping I left from the day before is quickly done, hair is sometimes brushed, and we dawdle away an hour or two of chores before packing lunch and escaping to the woods or beach. I wait for naps impatiently, only to squander the time in web browsing. Out of doors, perhaps because there are no dishes piled in sinks between the oaks, I am brighter, more patient. For two or three hours I manage to point out lizards and acorns, to walk unharried at a child’s pace. This lasts until we face climbing the flight of stairs home to our apartment – they are steep and it is hot, my arms are full of groceries and a backpack and I can picture the breakfast dishes in my mind’s eye. I read about household harmony, think I glimpse it in other families, but turn back to my own hearth and see good bits and pieces that don’t seem to quite come together. Even if we have a rhythm for weeks at a time I can’t seem to relax into it and put thoughts of the meaning of it all aside. I am struggling to live in the present.
There are days that stand out as blissful, efficient stars. Days in which no TV is watched, bread is baked messily together in the small white kitchen, the chores are done with mindless energy and I connect easily and sweetly with my toddling daughter. But the mass seem harder than they ought to be – slow, crumb-covered, occasionally resentful. I suppose I am waiting for a miraculous switch to flick on in my head that will beam me into an awareness of the present. I long for more of the moments of microscope-focused clarity I had nursing Elsa as a baby: eyelashes, breath, sweaty little temples, a sacred space I didn’t have to force myself into. The days are long but the weeks are fast, and time disappears whether I find a way to rejoice in it or not. I feel a bewildered longing for Wendell Berry’s “peace of wild things,” and yet cannot stop taxing my life with forethought of grief.
These are not monumental grievances I fear for – even in a time when it seems no state is free from gun violence I am not worried for my child’s next day, or for food on our table. But my small worries about moving apartments, and finding outdoor spaces in which to play, grow weighty and disproportionate. When I cannot see around the borders of my own sadness, it feels as though there are no borders at all, and that everything everywhere is in distress. The amount of grace I have within me to give dwindles and shadows. I become like a little playdough mother left in the corner of the kitchen – crisping around the edges, needful of care and yet utterly unappetizing.
It is an enormous effort, when I sit in that place, to give my family the gentleness that they rightly crave. Two years of too many transitions that feel out of my control have left me little ability to adapt graciously or quickly to new challenges. So I stick in the mud, convinced it is higher ground. I need the glimpse around my borders – rambling piles that I had thought were placed to help me cope and endure – to remind me to ask for a different perspective.
Few of my husband’s and my college friends have children, and I am often asked, “How is it, being a mom?” As time has gone by my response is slower, more thoughtful than it first was. Right now, with a two-year-old on my lap and another on the way, motherhood is about shifts in attitude and perspective. Most of parenting is still just getting up and getting the day’s work and care done, line by line, but I find myself needing so much philosophy to face the work of a morning. I’ve had more existential crisis by far as a parent than I ever did in college, with far fewer pieces of recommended reading that hold any true value for my straggling mind. I have had to acknowledge and then re-acknowledge that I have it in me to slap just as much as I do to kiss, that a sharp reprimand or impatient sigh comes out quickly and more naturally than a deep breath and gentle carry. These things are especially getting harder with each pound my daughter gains towards childhood and away from infancy. There are fewer naps, fewer pauses, many more words exchanged and I am pushing myself daily to look, look, at our present time while it is here. As a mother, there are no in-between times while you wait for the next thing, wait for motivation to strike to clean and bake and swing and teach.
I try again, each week, by packing a lunch and buckling Elsa into the carseat, to gather up the pieces I’ve hashed out again and again in my head and bring them into the day with me. We drive twenty-three minutes to the oak groves, re-tie our shoelaces, and meander into the trees. I focus on my daughter’s natural inclination towards copying bird calls, on the way her skin browns and glows in the freckling light. Eventually I spread out a small muslin swaddle as a picnic blanket, having abandoned heavier alternatives months ago, and neglect to be bothered by the tiny oak spines poking at my thighs through the thin fabric. Soft goat cheese, brittle carrots, a small chin to wipe at while noticing I need to cut her fingernails soon. Sweat from the sun at my temples, at the nape of her neck.
Torunn is a Southern California mother, writer and gardener who writes mostly creative nonfiction essays that seek to engage with parents about the complicated and under-spoken challenges and emotions of staying at home with children. Her work, both prose and poetry, has previously been published/ accepted for publication by: Kodon, The Pub, The Prairie Light Review, Kinfolk Magazine, and Mothers Always Write. Her Tumbler site can be found here