I was pushing down the crowded streets of a city, men and women in suits all around me, heels clacking on the sidewalk, sun piercing through buildings in narrow shafts of light. For an instant I was back in New York: the midday lunch crowd carrying me with it, spring in the air and with it the promise of longer and warmer days. But this wasn’t New York; there were a few dead giveaways.
There were the Australian flags waving from rooftops, the streets like “George” and “Pitt” instead of “42nd” and “5th.” There was the nearly three-year-old boy on my hip, refusing to walk despite assurances that my arm would fall off soon and groans that he was too big for this. There was the athleisure I was sporting, soaked with a layer of sweat from the gym and another from the walk from the ferry.
There was the ring I was going to retrieve: the ring I’d been given on a New York rooftop when we decided to keep saying yes to each other before we knew what it meant. The ring that had become, like me, a bit unhinged, the metal separating at a joint under the stone, which was loose. Here’s hoping vows are stronger than platinum.
I could be forgiven, I think, for transporting myself back to those American streets ten years ago, the only thing weighing me down being a knockoff designer bag and memories of bad dates. I could be forgiven, I know, for what I thought this morning: that motherhood is wonderful and beautiful and sometimes I HATE IT.
A few minutes later the ring rested around my finger. Little Brother and I sat at a cafe, where he downed two biscuits. At almost three, he’s been talking for a year, conversations indicating a vocabulary possibly more well-stocked than my own. I carried him the whole way back to the ferry while he giggled on my back. It was wonderful and beautiful and I loved and hated it.
The next day I accompanied The Kid to a birthday party down the street. A truck full of screens blasting video games sat outside the front yard. TK checked it out and quickly retreated. He checked out the playhouse, the snack table. He peeked inside the house, which was empty. I told him no, but the mom appeared beside me. “It’s okay, he can go inside,” she told me, then asked if he wanted to check out the toys. We talked for a minute before she headed back out, and I sat in a playroom with my son who didn’t speak until he was four. Recently I read something from just before the words happened–I had written about a dream I had in which he told me he loved me. And here we are, the dream having come true, but I’m still in a quiet playroom while the rest of the kids and moms (those whose kids hadn’t sent them away) mingled outside. I felt pulled toward them, the dual appeals of obligation and interest making me want to get up and walk out. TK asked me about the toys he pulled out, one by one. I imagined a life in which he was right there in the mix, playing video games and engaging in horseplay while I accepted the other moms’ invitation to go grab a cup of coffee at the beach.
I imagined that, and the thought just felt empty. It wouldn’t be him. What’s the point of that? Besides, my friend also passed on coffee and stayed with me to talk. Another life, and I would have missed so much. So many.
There is a painful beauty to what is real.
And there is “Sweet Home Alabama” blasting from the workmen’s radio as I walk to pick TK up from school. There is the city minutes away and the beach two minutes away, these two places that bring me to life. There is the working mom and the stay-at-home one, of which I’ve been both. There is the left and the right side of the road, and I’ve navigated each. There is the speechless and the never-shuts-up, the atypical and typically developing, the woman who pushed against TK getting off the ferry and the man who rushed to us, saying how rude it was and making sure we were okay. There is the New York marathon that set me running my own races and the Sydney marathon that made us miss our ferry but piled the four of us into a taxi together for yet another adventure. There is the single life I fought against, and parenthood, against which I fight too even as I try to grasp it, this slippery eel that I try to control with my promises to be kind and stay calm and DEAR GOD DON’T TAKE ANYTHING FOR GRANTED WHATEVER YOU DO and here we are anyway, the end of each day its own mixture of pride and regret and commiseration and wine.
There are not two lives but a million I could be living, imagining myself within at any given moment. In the end, it is always this one that stays.
LB brings his letters to school and his teachers rave about his alphabet knowledge. TK fixates on cars and his head therapist wants to limit them, to broaden his interests. That’s fine. But also…he walks up to strangers now and tells them about these cars of his, connects with people he’s never met on the street and ferry. He walks up to kids and parents at school, and one mom turns to me and says, “I can see him being a car designer.” And it feels like freedom all of a sudden, this idea that I can raise the children I have, not the ones I don’t. That I can live the life I have, too.