I remember the first time I felt in the presence of what our culture deems a super mom. I know a few of them. You do too. Maybe you even are one. And if you are, you are incredible. These moms run actual circles around me. Their houses are clean, their kids are well dressed (like in clothes that fit and aren’t stained), they have all the healthy and perfect snacks in those little lunch boxes and bags designed for tiny hands, they do the best outings with their kids weekly if not daily, and in general, they never seem that tired or flustered juggling it all. They even look put together in cute outfits and trendy sunglasses.
This is not me. I’ll spare you the list of everything opposite that occurs in my life. Although, in my opinion, I do have the world’s cutest pair of sunglasses. And I’ll spare the sob story too. I am not ashamed, and I do not need pity. Parenting my two kids and keeping up with their needs and mine all day leaves me on the verge of narcolepsy by 8:00 pm. I am actually unable to control the heaviness of my eyelids as the Netflix symbol flashes onto the screen. Out by 8:05. Every. Single. Night. And damn proud of the work I did that day, as I slumber next to a mountain of unfolded laundry and the blueberry smashed into the couch cushion by my head.
The exhaustion does get to me sometimes, but not because I think being tired is bad. I revel in it a bit like I did when I was pregnant. Amazed that the human body can just shut down and sleep when it needs to. In the last six years, I have learned how to take actual naps, and for me, this is an incredible accomplishment. Because up until I pushed that first baby out, I was one of the ones running circles. Not looking all that stylish, and still usually a bit of a mess, but I was getting shit done. And I often even stayed up past 10:00 pm.
These days I sit in the small cracks of time permitted to do the things I like, let alone the things I absolutely have to do. Feed my kids? I absolutely have to do that. Bathe them? We do a lot less of that than some. Play on the floor with them? I bank a little time doing that each day so that they will stop asking. Answer their questions? By the minute. Clean up their messes? When I have the reserves. But if I don’t, I don’t recommend coming over for dinner unless you own a hazmat suit.
I have choices. And freedoms. When I am feeling completely stuck, I go back to that reality. I am not actually oppressed in any way. I am just really, really pressed for time. For all that is involved in raising them. But especially for the things that are just for me.
I think of the things I would do if my day were completely mine. I might run or work out, make a few small, healthy and delicious meals precisely to my taste, read from the three books I often have going at once, do some yoga or maybe even teach a class. I’d pull out a knitting project and know that I could actually finish it in less than four years (the length of time it took me to make the blanket we snuggle under on our food-stained couch.) I would walk or meet up with a friend. I would travel. Alone. Or maybe even have a regular date with my husband, imagine that!? And finally, I’d do some writing.
I am a writer. I always have been. But that used to mean taking out a journal and pouring thoughts randomly onto pages with no destination in mind and no bother for unfinished sentences. When I felt the call to actually publish something for the world (or the handful of people who wanted to read it), I was faced with the reality of my predicament. Finishing something, anything at all was going to be a monstrous task. And it would leave me in a perpetual state of frustration. For all you know, I ended that sentence on perpetual and was unable to come back to it for 10 days.
The joy of completing things goes deeply into my past. It was a quirk that I never understood to be so rooted in me until I was restrained from satisfying the craving. I used to line up the 20 or so little bottles of Bath and Body Works products, gifts received for holidays and birthdays. In my 13-year-old excitement, I was determined to finish every single bottle to the last drop, watching each one hit the recycling bin, each one a little race finished. I would sometimes find all the journals that were never completed and fill their pages with whatever was on my mind, tucking the finished book into the closet, relieved not to have to worry about their blank endings any longer. And nothing gives me more joy than watching Amy Adams cook her way through Julia Childs’ life work, even in the moments that she is crying on the floor. Give me a year without dependents and a challenge like that, and I am in! I would actually eat chicken for the first time in 17 years to feel the accomplishment.
I can go deeper into my love for endings too. They fill me with more than just a check on a To-do list. Like when I read the last page of a book and my body is overtaken by whatever force covers me in goosebumps even though nothing about the air in the room has changed. Tears well in my eyes and the resolution overcomes me. Even if it’s a terrible one or a cliffhanger. I’m not sure in those moments if I am sad that it is over or amazed that someone saw their vision all the way through. I sit in a swell of too many feelings. Unsure if I even absorbed the content amidst the flutters that overtook me as I approached the final words. And agonize over what to start next. The beginning always feeling like mud to trudge through or a stranger to get to know. Waiting for the end where I actually pick up the book and hug it and say goodbye and good luck to my dear, dear friends.
In a world where I am not allowed to finish anything, not my coffee in the morning, or my breakfast on the fly, or my dishes 12 times a day, or even this sentence, I am in a state of never-ending frustration. It feels like a song left midway through the melody, nagging at my brain and begging for the conclusion. Or that sneeze that won’t happen. Or the name of that actor from the ’90s that is on the tip of your tongue, but you don’t even know what to google.
There’s a lesson here, I know. There always is when you’re raising your kids. Because while it’s almost always about them, it’s also always about you if you let it. You bring them into the world, not realizing you’ve shone the brightest spotlight on your quirks and flaws and places you still need to grow up, own up or heal. It’s a humbling process, if not a little painful.
When I started writing more consistently this fall, I imagined myself the artsy, angsty writer type. The romantic vision of someone who works on a piece or a novel for years, despite all the other demands on her life, until one day it all comes together. Where I typed through the screaming in the other room or scribbled while a child sat by my side with endless requests, even as I write now a moody toddler is crying because his cup is blue and not green as he holds a small spice container of cinnamon that he stole from the pantry. Why? I have no idea. It’s all nutty, yet I am still here doing the work, but I am certain it will not be the great romantic masterpiece I desire. Not yet, at least.
In the fall, I started an essay that gave me more joy than anything I ever wrote. It was for me. It dug deep into the cracks of my past and found me long ago before I had to share myself with anyone else. It has been in the works for months now, and it feels nowhere near finished. But I am learning patience with this seemingly endless process.
In the meantime, I try to find peace in the things I can finish. Small loads of laundry that can be folded and put away before little hands undo all my effort. Short articles for publications that will likely accept my stories. Instagram posts with 100 words or less to release the pressure of having something to say but never feeling like I can fully say it. And I have a few half-empty shampoo bottles in the back of the linen closet if all else fails.
Even still, life is full of unfinished projects. And I have no real solutions. I have had weeks where all I focused on was finishing things that left me tired, and one tracked, the other 90% of life completely upended. The house would be spotless, but the kids would be miserable. Or I’d finish an essay only to realize laundry didn’t get done for a week, dishes were a never-ending mountain, and we ate takeout for 4 days straight. None of this is all that bad, but the lack of balance is unsustainable.
I cannot do it all. And I wouldn't say I like that. Remember that super mom? I sometimes wish I could be her just for just a week. I want to finish the tasks that keep my life in order and do the work that fulfills me to my bones. I want to feel that deep satisfaction that overtakes me, like ending a book, reminds me that I am alive and living my purpose.
When the pandemic set in and the confinement of home became too much, I turned to write as an outlet. It liberated me when I was quite literally stuck in one spot with nowhere to go. It took me places. It gave home to my rage. It held my heartbreak. It helped me find a new understanding when I was stuck. And still, it takes me weeks or months to finish anything I start, often writing at 5 am, during nap times, and in the brief hours that I have a babysitter. If there aren’t groceries to buy, kids' clothes to order, and a house refinance to prepare for.
Writing often comes second when I want it to come first, but I’m not sure I’d even really have anything to write about if it always came first. My tension fuels me. There’s excitement in sneaking an hour in when I know I should be doing something else. There’s fervor in typing as fast as I can before the baby yells my name from his crib. Perhaps I am living the angsty writer’s life I dreamed, and when I look back, the retrospective rosy glow of the romance will be revealed. There may not have been retreats in the mountains or long leisurely walks for inspiration, but there were plenty of times my kid hid my glasses and nearly spilled his milk on my keyboard. Who defines what’s romantic anyway?
In the south, where we reside, summer outlives all the other seasons. It is oppressive. The heat lingering months longer than anyone desires. This season of life feels like my southern summer. This sticky, nagging swelter where nothing gets done, and we all move too slow even to be able to see the finish line. I will endure it like I do each summer. I will allow it to be a setting for my story. I will even love parts of it as the sweat drips down my back, and I smear the third layer of sunblock on their tiny faces as we walk to the park in the ungodly heat. There’s a challenge to it. Grit even. I wouldn’t make it to the end of cooking alongside Julia Child either, without a few tears and gaining 20 pounds. I have to stay the course even though mine is a journey without a clear destination. At least not one that is visible on the map.
No matter what the day brings, my laptop will be at the table waiting in the early mornings when the deer creep in the shadows of my lawn. Or when the sun goes down, and I can open the windows and hear the earliest calls of the coyote pups from the park and the cicadas in the trees. I might type a paragraph or two. Or stare out the window trying to transition my brain from kid mode to intellect. I sometimes check on submission deadlines that I know I’ll never meet. And then I write what I can until I inevitably need to abort the mission mid-sentence.