One at a Time (and All Together)

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“I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” –Blaise Pascal

I keep forgetting to look at the water.

It’s all around me: on the walk to school, in pockets along streets we pass in the car, outside our bedroom window, and there, most boldly, at The Kid’s school, the harbour sitting below us in early-morning serenity. The water I’ve longed for a view of my whole life, and I continue to miss it. Because, you know, #life.

“What I want is what I’ve not got, and what I need is all around me,” Dave Matthews sang back in 1994, the heyday of my insecurity and identity-building, and I clung to the words for the wisdom I thought they provided, a message just for me in my rule-following glory: suck it up and be grateful. Well, now I’ve got both what I need and what I want, in almost dizzying measure, and here I am measuring my life in coffee spoons anyway, and complaining to anyone who will listen that my diamond shoes are too tight.

And yet…there’s grace for it all. Every moment of it.

That’s the thing, though, isn’t it? For me, at least. To stay in the moment.

This morning the universe seemed to be conspiring against me, which is a philosophical inconvenience when one believes in God, since “the universe” is a Person, and as such He seems to have it in for me most days before 9 am. The boys were taking their time (read: NOT) obeying my instructions, which I delivered as though we were approaching the beaches of Normandy and survival depended on our hustle; in reality, we were leaving for school drop-off with time to spare. But tell that to my high-anxiety, Type A personality (and when you do, wear a bullet-proof vest because she is packing…and bitchy). I couldn’t find the remote to the garage, which as a sentence I think may be the most #firstworldproblem ever uttered, and there was a bunch of other shit I can’t even remember but seemed pretty damn monumental at the time. Then I tried to compose a prayer out loud and just felt like the biggest joke ever. WHAT BUSINESS DO I HAVE PRAYING FOR/IN FRONT OF MY CHILDREN? What will they learn from that: calm prayers uttered from the lips of a manic freak who just rushed them through their morning as though our lives depended on it? For that matter, what business do I have praying at all, after such a display of faithlessness, living as I do like the world depends on my control of it?

Well…I’d humbly submit that I have every business, in both cases. I mean, I still need air.

So I prayed, and the air defused a bit of the tension that filled it, and these two faces that keep showing up every morning, they looked back at me in trust. And I was reminded of the night last week, when they just would NOT STOP TALKING at bedtime, and all I could picture was the cover of the book Go the F*ck to Sleep and it is possible I kept quoting it under my breath. Then I felt both their tiny bodies, one under each of my arms, and the warmth and life coming from them, these two beings, these two boys, I longed for for longer than I even know. And I breathed, which also means I prayed, and it sounded like “Thank you.” Thank you for bringing me here independent of my trying and my identity-building and my rule-keeping and -failing. Thank you for this life that sucks the life out of me and gives it right back.

Last week TK had three hours booked at his therapy centre and Little Brother’s babysitter cancelled, so I ventured out in desperation with LB away from the centre and toward the centre–of the unfamiliar suburb where we know only one spot, twice a week. We walked twenty minutes and passed a playground and landed at a bakery. At the bakery, we had a biscuit and a conversation, and we stopped at the playground on the way back. The impending sunset and just me being me brought on nudges of anxiety that threatened to become waves, but he wanted to stop and jump off some steps in front of an office complex anyway. So I breathed/prayed and let him. A woman inside, sitting at her desk, saw us and waved. LB grinned at his achievement: “Higher! I higher!” A walk with a boy, with my boy, it can change an afternoon if I just show up for it.

Yesterday I was rushing, AGAIN, with time to spare. LB moaned in the backseat about his shoes hurting his feet, which I thought was bullshit but checked on anyway after we pulled up to TK’s school. I thought of the mindfulness technique I picked up in therapy: take the time to feel the moment. UGH. But I did, taking each shoe off, then each sock, and replacing them. It took maybe…a minute? He looked up at me, trust in his eyes. “That’s better,” he said, then his eyes moved to my initial necklace. “Where’s my letter?” he asked, and it took maybe…twenty seconds? To have a moment of finding the W, holding it out to him, seeing the recognition in his face, of being mine and my being his.

We walked together to TK’s classroom, where the kids were finishing lunch. His teacher grinned at me conspiratorially, handed me a thin but firm envelope. It wasn’t a report. It wasn’t a list of goals. It was his school photo packet, and she and his therapist and I went through them together. “That’s him,” she said to me as I held up the largest photo of his beaming face. “They so got him with that shot.” TK and LB came up next, followed by the rest of the class, who giggled and grinned over the photos. “Aww, look at James!” Then the other kids left for recess, and were it not for therapy, for all our challenges, the next moment wouldn’t have happened, and what would be the good in that? Because the therapist led us over to the corner where a car park sat, constructed in wood and glue and buttons and lights and love, three floors put together just for my boy. TK’s teacher grinned, and I tried not to cry, and later TK asked me why the therapist/friend had made it for him. “Because he loves you,” I told him. “Because you are so loved.”

These moments that come because of who and where we are, and what grace is, leading us to them not by our own effort but even more incredibly, through our ceaseless failures to recognise it until we have nowhere else to turn and nothing else to do: beholding the glory in front of us and staying there, an act of worship as simple and difficult as praying, which is to say, breathing, which is to say, #life.

Will Write for Attention

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In my dreams, I can breathe underwater. In my anxiety-crippled reality, I just discovered that a thing called secondary drowning exists. Yay! NEW WAYS (FOR MY KIDS) TO DIE THAT I HADN’T HEARD OF BEFORE.

We’ve been in Sydney nearly six months and there are countless “favourites” among our crew: the local, world-class zoo; Sunday morning ferry rides into the harbour for church; the amusement park fifteen minutes from our house; water views at every turn; late-afternoon trips to the beach. But one of my greatest thrills occurs every Thursday, when the local weekly paper is delivered to our mailbox.

Read the rest over at Mockingbird!

You Get to See Me

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And when things start to happen, don’t worry, don’t stew. Just go right along, you’ll start happening too!

The Husband got me a present the other day. It was a backpack.

In the world of gifts, this choice is akin to a vacuum cleaner (actually, he got one of those recently too but I love it) or cooking lessons. Not because it wasn’t thoughtful–I mean, he texted me from the shop to ask for specifications in an effort to pick what I’d like–but because this is my life now. I carry a backpack. Like some kind of middle-aged hiker or Cheryl Strayed-in-Wild wannabe. Except I’m not hiking, unless you count the trips through the playground sand to push my kids on the swing. The backpack is representative of my life now because I’m a bit beyond diaper bags (and so OVER them) but not quite ready for designer shoulder-wear. Not with the baggage I have: extra Paw Patrol underwear, Pull-Ups, changes of little-boy clothes, water bottles and snacks and wipes. A few Legos for no apparent reason. Not exactly Gucci material. And it all weighs on me, forcing me to choose between being fashionable and lopsided or just comfortable, and I choose comfortable (see also: heels vs flats).

But this doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.

My bag-centric practicality isn’t what I thought “having it all” would look like. Apparently, having it all refers more to “carrying all the stuff,” because guess who gets the side-eye when some vital accessory is left at home? “My mommy forgot my crunch and sip snack today,” The Kid announced to whoever happened to be standing around this morning in the schoolyard, and I felt my anxiety and resentment rise concurrently at being the sole proprietor of the Kids’ Shit mantle. I’m always carrying stuff, whether my own bag filled with their gear, or TK’s massive school bag filled with learning materials and lunch boxes, or Little Brother’s monkey pack-pack (his title) filled with pretty much nothing but that he demands to have on-site at all occasions because his big brother has one. I carry all this on my two arms that are at least one too few, or my shoulders that are knotted and tense, and they may as well be weighed down some days with rocks labeled bitterness and fatigue and issues with gender-specific task allocations and upended expectations.

And yes, I know this is a continuing theme. All of my themes are continuing. But I’m not alone. And that’s why I write about them.

“Marriage isn’t what I thought it would be,” came the statement over the phone from one friend, while another one and I discussed how much more understandable they are these days, the women who run out on their families. And my writing- and non-lesbian-life partner wrote this, which (a) reminded me why I love her; (b) made me feel less alone; and (c) weighed me down with the truth that sets me free. TRIFECTA ACCOMPLISHED. So I passed it along to others who are honest about their identity struggles within marriage and parenting, and with the joyous and grieving process it all is. To the rest of the members of the Backpack Club.

It’s all just so everything, isn’t it? And it appears that there is no other way but for this path to be fraught: with emotion, with difficulty, with victory, with ALL THE STUFF.

Like, there’s this: I know there was a time when I picked TK up from school and our rides were silent but for my voice, and me desperately wishing for his words. I know this was our life at some point. But now I cannot remember it. Because now, he opens his car window and yells out at the other kids, “Bye bye! I’ll see you tomorrow! COCK A DOODLE DOO!” and dissolves into a hyena laugh. I know there was a time when birthday parties left me crying and anxious, when all the other kids would so easily sit for present-opening or use a fork to eat their cake. And now, sure I’m anxious still, but the kids here either don’t use a fork, or he uses one alongside them, albeit in his own messy way.

There is still the hard part. There is the moment when he runs up to a girl in his school’s uniform on the way down the school path and points, asking, “What’s his name?” because he hasn’t quite got the knack of appropriate pronouns yet, and sometimes the kid will screw up her face or the mother will laugh nervously and I will wonder to myself if something was stolen from us; if there was some version of him out of which we were cheated, one that approached social situations easily and left me unworried over his interactions and everything else, and then I remember that there is no other version. There is no Plan B. We weren’t diverted from some other path; we were always on this one, the one we were meant and made for. And I think about how our car rides wouldn’t mean nearly as much if he had always talked through them; how LB’s own words wouldn’t feel so miraculous either. How I might not even notice it, the way TK burrows in beside me in the morning on the bed and whispers, “Mommy. See me,” because this is how his language puts it when he wants me to look at him. And LB, he prefaces every comment with “we get to”: we get to go to the shops, we get to take a bath, we get to go get James. Every single act an opportunity rather than a task.

They are changing me. They are taking me back to school with my backpack firmly in place and they are changing me. And it is hard and awful and wonderful and amazing.

On Friday night, we left them and went with our guests on a dinner cruise to see the lights of Vivid Sydney, and once we docked we waited at the other harbour–the one we don’t get to as often–and witnessed a light show we hadn’t known about. It just exploded there, right before our eyes, because that’s where we were standing. All the lights that, because of where I am, I now get to see.

There Is No Other Version

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“The things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.” –Ben Platt, concluding his Tony acceptance speech

Can you become…a new version of you?” the voice sang from my screen every week throughout the end of college and the first half of dental school, and I wanted to scream back, “I HOPE SO BECAUSE I’VE BEEN WORKING ON IT MY WHOLE LIFE!” This desire to be something other than the meek, flailing twenty-something (and before that, teenager, and before that, kid) that I seemed to be, it fueled everything I did. My biting sarcasm (and other defense mechanisms), my studying, my clinging to the barest hint of relationship, my move to New York City. LIKE FELICITY! I found comfort in a narrative that appeared to glorify my own. Plus, she got the guy in the end. I mean, they cheated on each other, like, A LOT, but they ended up together.

Meanwhile, it seemed that everywhere I went, there I was. Still. Without the guy.

Now I have three guys. A trinity of males who fill my heart and my washing machine and my waking (and sleeping) hours with concern for their well-being, efforts toward their happiness, irritation at their insubordination. I am the same person I ever was, fighting my own constant inner unholy trinity of frustration, anger, and self-righteousness. I’m also more different from that kid and teenager and twenty-something than I’ve ever been, for being a wife and mother has unlocked parts of me that I never had access to before. Parts I didn’t know existed. Some of them? Damn ugly, recesses of selfishness and a need to control everything/one in my path, writ large in the daily monotony of life within a family. Some of them shocking in their gentleness or ferocity, reflecting the mystery of being a mother, soaked in ambivalent waters that run so deep.

The Kid is getting all Felicity on me, becoming a new version of himself. Or is he just becoming…more himself? I watch as he resembles some type of local celebrity: there are people crossing our path daily who see him coming, and welcome him. He stops and smiles at the mother on Spit Road whose son studies him while she grins big when he walks up, asks him what kind of car he has today. He turns to the next table at restaurants and gives his coy “Hiiiii,” flashing a smile, and when they’re lucky they get a look at that day’s vehicular choice too. He delights babies, who squeal with glee (usually) when he approaches and tickles their feet or pats their faces. His confidence is growing along with his charm. He is becoming unlocked, getting accessed. And it’s beautiful.

But not everyone likes these updated versions of ourselves. This past weekend the boys and I entered the lift at the shopping center, the glass one that we ride without destination multiple times a week, and TK set about pushing the buttons as he does, like an expert, the lights flashing beneath his fingers that are so attuned to when the door needs to open and close. It’s like a language he’s learned. But not one everyone speaks it.

An older woman got on the lift and narrowed her eyes at the injustice of a child being permitted such freedom. At the audacity of a mother who gave the permission. She watched his every move, to the point that she missed her stop and became outraged. What follows is a transcript of the ensuing conversation:

Nasty Old Bitch (NOB): He just made me miss my stop!
Me (doubtful, but willing to put it to rest quickly): Well I’m sorry about that. But I don’t think it’s the end of the world. (Okay, maybe that wasn’t very placating after all.)
NOB (Stares at him, trying to block his hands from the buttons, growing increasingly agitated as the elevator goes the opposite direction from her destination; finally glares at me): Where are you even GOING?
Me: We’re not going anywhere. We’re riding for fun.
NOB (interrupting me, nodding so hard I’m worried her plastic surgery scars will rip): That’s what I thought. RIDING FOR FUN. You have no business doing that. And he has no business pushing buttons.
Me: Like I said, I don’t think it’s the end of the world. And if you can’t handle a kid who wants to ride the lift for a few minutes just because it makes him happy, that sounds like your problem.
NOB: HE MADE ME MISS MY STOP!
Me: Well, you must be very important if you don’t have thirty extra seconds to spare for an honest mistake!
NOB: Well he must be the most important one of all!
Me: HE IS TO ME.
NOB: NOT TO ME!
Me: AND THAT’S YOUR LOSS.
Pause; silence.
Little Brother: Mommy?
Me: Yes, buddy?
LB (Grins): Hi.
Me (laughing): Hi.
(Elevator door opens, woman exits angrily. I WIN.)

There have been other versions of this story before, I assure you. Snide remarks made under someone’s breath. My reticence, my fear of conflict leading me to stay silent. Hell, I’ve been my own version of the NOB, sneering at parents who clearly don’t discipline their children enough, rolling my eyes at crying babies on planes. I’ve been all over the wrong side of everything. But this time? This time, the anger and frustration that typically plague me, born of either self-righteousness or fear? They were gone. What I was, was oddly calm. I was defending my child against irrational ugliness, and damn it felt good. And bad, because it’s never fun to deal with bullshit (mine or others’). But mostly I felt like a warrior princess who’d be DAMNED if anyone was going to step up on her baby.

What I’m figuring out is this: we are all mixed versions of ourselves at any given time, the Me from decades ago interacting with the Me of now (hello, inner child therapy exercises). I am not becoming a new person. I am not becoming stronger, unless the kind of power you mean is the kind that often looks like weakness, the exhaustion of parenting, of life, of facing my own insufficiency driving me into the grace that answers with all its enough-ness.

A friend put it better in a message recently: “To put my allegiance to a sense of Me at any point is to say that I am immutable and unchanging. I am the created; I am a work in progress; and I am so incomplete and messy and fucked that I can’t even redeem myself. But the animating fact is the love of God, the immeasurable grace, the unchangeable holiness of who He is.”

Hell yeah. Whether I walk away from an encounter feeling like Wonder Woman or NOB, whether TK is sporting one of his wide-as-the-earth smiles of late or melting down at the rain-soaked Vivid Sydney display at the zoo, whether LB is delightfully defusing an elevator dustup or providing material for the next edition of The Strong-Willed Child…I can stop chasing alternate universes where I don’t have anxiety, where TK isn’t on the spectrum, where LB doesn’t act out to get attention. We are always in the right place, even when it sucks. My strangeness and yours and his and hers, hobbling us into the rescue of grace by what we will never and always be.

“We Get to Find Out!”

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We just talk and take in the view.

This morning, outside The Kid’s classroom, a couple of other mums and I were left behind once the two single-file lines had chaotically climbed the steps and retreated from outdoor play to begin indoor learning. “I just hate when our mornings begin like this,” one of them said, recounting the day thus far, which included a slowpoke child who wouldn’t listen to instructions and some responsive voice-raising and regret. We commiserated together over these guilt-laden moments, and pronounced gratitude for children’s short memories.

I’m having these conversations daily, it seems.

All the mothers I know are doing a bang-up job with what they’re given, which is to say imperfect kids and imperfect selves in an imperfect world, but we are, without exception, beating ourselves up at points along the way. If not the entire way, managing doubt and regret along with grocery lists and dinner prep, carrying guilt while folding the laundry, our children on our minds whether they’re with us or not. It’s a weight that’s as impossible to fully share (thanks, biology) as it is to elucidate for others, namely, the men in our lives who often try to understand but–and we love you, but it’s true–never fully will. Not without lying on the bed or operating table themselves, being cut open or squeezing out, and enduring the mind-blowing and never-ending explosion of hormones and body changes that accompany the miraculous act of giving birth. It’s an incredible gift and an isolating endeavour, and we’re trying to find unifying moments with others even as we often feel we’re doing the bulk of it alone.

So how’s everyone else’s day going?

I realised yesterday morning how much of my life operates under the thumb of fear, and how it turns me into a creature that can’t sit still but is always one moment, or hour, or day ahead, and how hard this makes parenting, and life, for me. How an afternoon stretching before us with just me and the kids (hell, an hour) looms like a spectre and that this is something I do to myself because underneath it all is the fear, the anxiety, of having to fill that time and make it matter; how NOT to populate it with my mistakes. I am afraid of myself, of hurting them by raising my voice or misinterpreting some outburst or just not being enough, and I’m so tired of the way this fear follows me around without my even seeing it. How I’ve somehow come to accept it as just the way things work. Motherhood, these moments, they should be a gift, right? So a friend asked the other day, and I counted yet another layer of guilt we’re putting on ourselves: the guilt of not enjoying every. damn. minute.

It should be a gift, and it should be magical, and also? Some of it really sucks. And I am of the firm belief that we need the space to recognise those moments, the sucky ones, just as much as the sepia-toned ones, not only because this is honest, but because it makes the magic more magical. I’ve found myself saying it lately, (hopefully) inside my head in those moments when I look at what is happening and think to myself that if this were any other job, everyone would quit: “God, this sucks right now. I mean, REALLY SUCKS.” Most of these moments involve poo, FYI. But not all.

TK won’t shut the fuck up. Isn’t it cute? Weren’t you right, whoever you were who told me for those four silent years that one day I’d long for a moment of quiet? And yes, there is value in recalling those days, those moments when I would have given my left nut for the word “Mommy,” and now he says it constantly. And I hear it now, and it both soothes my heart as it makes me want to hide in the closet with a bottle of wine, because it is a reminder of need. And I’m not so good with others’ need. WELCOME TO PARENTING, ASSHOLE! you may say, as you whisper, “I told her so” under your breath about the talking thing, and if so, sorry, I’m all out of wine but you can have a tall glass of shut the hell up because I’m WORKING ON THINGS here. Motherhood, like health care coverage, ain’t that simple and you don’t get past the hard part. So on the way to and from school, my formerly wordless boy asks a million questions as I wonder which one will turn me from Patient, Responsive Mommy, Fount of Knowledge and Wisdom and into Cruella Bitchface Mommy, on the local news at 7 tonight. Some of these questions are so brilliant and yet without answers, as while I can tell him what makes up a Happy Meal, I’m not sure I can explain an Angry Meal or a Sad one (some help, McDonald’s?). I grit my teeth as he sounds off again while lying in bed, and I’m imagining my hot bath and my own bed, both so close yet so far away, and then I realise these are the moments that are scaffolding his young childhood and AREN’T I AN ASS.

With some friends last week, I asked for encouragement. For prayers that I would just enjoy my children. Just enjoy them.

Later that day, TK and Little Brother were gabbing away in the backseat. An actual conversation, not exactly regarding nuclear physics, but interaction nonetheless, and I gave myself a moment to stop ruing the podcast I couldn’t listen to because this was a moment I had, once upon a time, dreamed for. We got to the parking lot and TK whined because we were going to the beach first instead of the playground, and I wanted to scrap the whole thing and retreat to the closet. A few minutes later we were finally on his playground and I ran between the boys, helping LB up the slide and swinging TK, and I saw a path in the distance. “Want to go on an adventure walk?” I asked them, and they giddily assented as though it was the best idea they’d ever heard. “What will be there?” asked LB, and within a second had answered himself: “We get to find out!” As the sun set, we climbed the hill that overlooked the water. “WowEEE!” TK exclaimed. “This is the view!”

This is the view. This expanse ahead of us, with the climb always there too, the falling down and skinned knees and expletives and regrets, and the view. They ask about the sunset every day, remark on its beauty, and they notice it because I showed it to them, and I am doing so many things wrong but there is this: somehow there is teaching that has occurred outside the grandiose plans I once had that now litter the wayside along with the too-small, too-easy dreams of the past, and within their death is the seed that is growing into this. The reality of what is. The view before us. They are recognising the narrative within which our lives operate, the story of a grace that walks uphill with us, that stops alongside us when we’re hurt and acknowledges the pain, that provides sunrises and sunsets and rainbows to remind us it never leaves. That teaches us, is teaching them, to see.

What’s next? We get to find out…together.

Been Here Before

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I’m passionately smashing every expectation.

We’re sitting in another classroom, with another teacher and another therapist, on another morning. It all feels very familiar.

And yet not. Because we’re in another country, on another continent, in another hemisphere, in another season. And then another thing happens.

It’s only good news.

These meetings, which have been occurring in conference rooms and classrooms and waiting rooms and exam rooms around the world now, have led to this place, this school overlooking a harbour filled with boats. The sunshine creeping in through the window and the sound of children playing outside while my own alternate their own playing with trips over to see us, their parents, sitting on tiny chairs at an undersized table, two people who love them more than they can imagine, talking to two people who love them too.

This is the same, but it’s totally different.

She pulls out James’s papers, a thin sheaf with his picture on the front–his mug shot, I joke to him, and I feel the freedom to joke, to laugh, because we’re not here to recognise red flags or discuss warning signs. We’re here to check in. We’re here to, I’m beginning to feel, celebrate.

There’s news of all the expectations he’s smashed this year, of all the goals he’s already met that need to be adjusted already. And as I hear each one, I feel it fall on my heart because I know the challenge each one is: the muscle weakness that must be overcome, the noise that must be filtered out, the sensory input that must be recognised. None of this has come easily to him, and this boy of mine playing with his brother ten feet (3 metres) away, I see him clearly for the first and millionth time. He is home.

We take turns talking about what we’ve witnessed from him: the unprompted and lingering hug he gave a classmate at the shops this weekend (overcoming social anxiety); the handwriting that’s taking off (smashing wrist weakness); the joy at the school’s fireworks night (filtering through all the stimuli). We’re all grinning, all saying how proud we are of him. And his teacher, she explains her side: “He was an unknown. All the other kids coming in, we had a chance to meet them, but he was an unknown.”

He’s not unknown now.

Everywhere we go, we hear his name. Our names. I run into friends at the park where I sit on a bench with Little Brother, and he and his buddy take off for the slide while I talk mum-to-mum. I lead The Kid across the street toward the schoolyard and older kids and their parents greet him by name.

And yeah, there are the tough revisits: the meltdown in ALDI that echoes my months-ago one in IKEA; four-letter words both; but his with the added difficulties that render him unable to cope and me, unable to deal, and by the time the three of us are sitting on his bedroom floor, LB patting his back and climbing on me, we’ve all been crying, but we are together. And we are understanding each other a bit more every day. A few minutes later I’m making dinner (peanut butter sandwiches, thank you very much; this day has been a bitch) and realise that I can manage his behaviour–manage him–or know him. Dammit. The first one would have been so much easier.

His teacher mentioned the transition program they’ll have in place to move him up next year, and one of my deepest fears is then addressed: he WILL be moving, and not only that but they assure us he’ll have some core friends in place around him. HE HAS CORE FRIENDS. And I think back to a year ago, when I was decimated by his staying put in the same class, fearful for his future. To nine months ago, when I dissolved into tears leaving a local private school here in Sydney because they were so unwelcoming. All the while, we were headed here. Were being ushered, loved all the way here. Through tears and frustration, failure and heartbreak, landing at home together.

I take LB to get his hair cut at the barbershop on a Friday morning, and he fights it, crying the whole time from my lap. Later that day, we return. Revisit. It’s the same place, but it’s different: TK sitting in the chair by himself, laughing at the process. He used to scream. I hear “Midnight Train to Georgia” from the radio, and I just laugh. Home and home. God, we’re so home, all the time.

And on Saturday night, after an afternoon of successful swimming and inflated-slide climbing that takes my breath away in the best way, we head to the fireworks show. On the way I imagine bombings, of course, because that’s my brain doing its ridiculous work, but instead we sit on a blanket. I place headphones on his ears while The Husband has to cart LB away, who can’t take the noise. A friend (I HAVE CORE FRIENDS) comes to sit beside me and I pour her a glass of champagne and we laugh as TK beams with joy, literally bouncing with it, beside us. This place isn’t perfect (their milk containers could be sturdier, for instance–the one I dropped this morning exploded a gallon of dairy goodness all over the kitchen. But then I told another mum about it and she described it as one of those, “Oh, for FUCK’S SAKE!” moments and all was well). I know there will be rough spots, difficulties. There already have been. It’s called life.

But right now, as grace keeps bringing us back to the same spots to admire the different views, it’s also called home.

Will Write for Attention

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I saw the emotional avalanche that is Dear Evan Hansen two weeks ago, on a yearly childless pilgrimage my husband and I make to the city where we fell in love, and conveniently, where Mockingbird holds an annual conference. Maybe it’s the range and sincerity displayed by headliner Ben Platt, with whose image I am considering adorning my bedroom walls (I think my husband will be fine with it; considering our age difference, it would be more of a proud Teen Mom situation). Maybe it’s the poignant and earworm-ridden soundtrack. Maybe it’s the tendency of the cast to depart from the stage door entrance every night and graciously sign playbills. Or maybe it’s the narrative, which feels personalized to me on every level: high-anxiety mother of at least one high-anxiety son; former awkward teen and current awkward adult; battler of insecurity and feelings of never fitting in.

I loved it, is what I’m saying. And what’s more, I am it.

Read the rest over at Mockingbird!

Made for Each Other

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Say it with me: I’m a shitty mom.

No? Not into that? Doesn’t make you feel better? Because lately I’ve come to wonder what our group obsession is with telling each other what a good job we’re doing; what wonderful mothers we are. And then I show myself and others a little grace and realise, duh, it’s because this matters more than just about anything else we do. We don’t want to suck at it.

But guys. WE DO.

And we don’t. But the parts where we do suck–where we fall apart, and don’t have the answers, and are left heaving and hurting with heaving and hurting kids beside us? These parts are real and deserve attention. They deserve being called what they are. And what they are, are not our best moments. And I have a lot of them. And maybe shitty is too strong a word, and sucks doesn’t exactly foster conversation, but neither does hiding those dark moments and covering them up with pretty ones.

I’m tired, is what I’m saying. So if you’re tired, and feel weak, and need a place to sit without having to get your shirt dry-cleaned first and have a professional photographer gloss away the messy bits, then there is room over here.

Welcome. Let’s breathe.

The other night The Kid set off our house’s security alarm. Yep, surprise! WE HAVE A SECURITY ALARM! It was news to us too–not that we had one, exactly, because the control panel is right there on the wall, but being the renters we are and having been given no information about said alarm, we figured it was disarmed. That there was no danger of it being set off.

TK woke us from that reverie.

So it was that on a Friday evening at around 7 pm, in the dark autumn night when bath time should have been gearing up, a shrill electronic scream broke through the air on our quiet street. TK freaked out. Loud noises coupled with parental anxiety? TIME TO HIT THE ROOF. Nothing would assuage his fear; no amount of reassurance would calm him. So I did that thing they tell you to do if you want to be a good mom: you play the flight attendant when the plane is crashing and your kids are the passengers. You stay (fake being) calm. IT DIDN’T WORK. Not for TK, at least. Meanwhile, Little Brother bounced around like we had just kicked off a rave and it was the BEST, MOST EXCITING NIGHT EVER. The Husband fiddled with the control panel, then descended to the basement to fiddle with the fuse box, and I heard proclamations floating up the stairway that brought to mind the dad in A Christmas Story when he was working on the heater, so I made an executive decision. Maybe even a shitty one: I poured a short roadie of red (one inch, or 2.54 centimetres if you’re nasty) into a stemless glass, threw on some shoes, forgot my wallet, and told the kids we were going for a drive. LB bounced behind me and into his carseat, glee plastered across his face at this break in monotony, while that same break in monotony plastered terror over TK’s features. He reluctantly climbed into his booster, though, and we backed out of the driveway in time to meet one of our neighbours who was walking by to “check on us” (figure out what the hell was going on and why we couldn’t stop it). He graciously offered us a place to stay if we needed it, which I think was sincere and not code for “I’m going to have you kicked out of the country if this doesn’t cease in the next five minutes.”

And off we drove into the night.

As “Cherry Bomb” poured from the car’s speakers and LB sang Mickey Mouse songs in the backseat and TK asked the same thousand questions over and over and we drove circles around our neighbourhood, I thought about how wonderfully shitty I am at this whole “caring for others” thing. Even the film Bad Moms didn’t touch on the idea of chauffeuring your kids around with takeaway Shiraz in hand, but I thought that movie kind of sucked anyway because their lives were more funny than depressing and who believes that? Besides, LB was now giggling in the backseat and TK was visibly calming (or I was), and at the end of the day if you bring home two intact and somewhat happy children, I’d say that’s a success (#lowstandards).

The alarm eventually subsided once TH pulled the plug on nearly all our electricity. We had to throw out everything in the freezer and fridge (RIP, 2 bottles of champagne), but we survived. Success.

The boys are taking swim lessons and they are truly smashing it. They willingly jump in to their teacher and are both going underwater (LB’s submersions have been mostly accidental, but whatever) and they’re learning survival skills which is all encouraging, but my favourite development so far is how they cheer each other on. TK gets into the water first, and LB yells from the side, “Hooray! Yay, James!” and applauds as if he’s watching the Olympic finals. Then it’s LB’s turn, and James throws out a few “Yay Will, go”s before begging to ride the glass elevator. They are for each other, and it echoes LB’s utterances from his carseat on the night of the alarm: “It’s okay, James. It’s not scary.”

I tell him what a good brother he is, because that’s what you do. That’s what people want to hear, right? But the thing is, sometimes it is scary. Sometimes the thing that doesn’t bother you, or undo you, or leave you heaving and hurting on the floor beside your heaving and hurting children? Sometimes that’s the very thing that DOES do all that to someone else. We are all broken in different ways by different things. Some of us, ahem, get through a spinal surgery and hospital stay with their kid then almost lose their mind when he finally starts talking and won’t stop asking what every. word. means. Some moms have to leave their son’s room during bedtime because he won’t read his damn book like he knows he’s supposed to, and when those moms finally cool off and reenter the room and the son asks, “Mommy, why did you leave?” those moms say they nicest thing they can think of which is also true, and it sounds like, “I needed a break.”

Sometimes we need a break. And here’s what that can look like to me: we all want to hear we’re great at this, but what I think we really want, even more, is to know that in those moments when we’re not so great at it? When we, in fact, kind of suck at it? That we’re still loved, that there are people who won’t abandon or refuse to forgive us.

The boys talk to each other in the car now, and it is hilarious. They argue over the most ridiculous and non-existent crap, like whether the airport is closed and why people go to jail. Throw in a few made-up words and I feel like an Uber driver carting around a couple of drunks. It is wonderful. And, sometimes, when they reach a fever pitch and start whining and my eardrums bleed, it is shitty. But every Saturday, they cheer each other on. They emerge from the pool, and the car, and the alarms, and the days, intact and mostly happy. They are learning to take care of each other, as I am learning to take care of them. We are doing something you can’t be taught yet still have to learn: how to love, and how much life there is in admitting we have miles (or kilometres, if you’re nasty) still to go.

A Mother of a Load

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Females are strong as hell. –Walter Bankston

This morning a text dropped on my face in the middle of the pre-school chaos, asking me if I could read with The Kid’s class today because the mum I alternate weeks with had an appointment she forgot about. CUE THE UPHEAVAL.

But not before I quickly texted back “Sure” with a thumbs-up emoji because I AM IN A NEW PLACE AND MY NEED TO BE LIKED HERE (ANYWHERE) KNOWS NO BOUNDS. Especially when my kids are involved. So I assented to the alteration of our morning landscape–not exactly akin to the beaches of Normandy, but adding anxiety nonetheless–and proceeded to let the new tension tighten my shoulders, cramp my back, raise my voice, and leave me realising once again how laid-back Aussies are and how NOT laid-back I am. How f-ing mental I am, to put it their way. In a quiet moment in front of the mirror, I breathed. I thought about my kids, quietly watching their screens in my room. And I did this: I resolved not to do better but to let go.

We moms carry too much.

We carry tension, and anxiety, and guilt, hung like millstones around our necks while water threatens drowning all around us but land persists, and we do too. We carry scars (my children seem to be magnetised to the one on my abdomen out of which they were born, landing on it with such regularity that I wonder if it’s their mother ship calling them home). We carry bags, ridiculous folds of leather and fabric containing the secrets of universes both Lego and literal, with some sand and dried peanut butter mixed in for WTF-fun. (At least I hope it’s peanut butter.) We carry hearts, and it’s a good thing when I chose that poem for my wedding I didn’t know how painfully true it would apply to my parenting or I would have run the other direction (don’t feel bad for The Husband; he would have too). We carry hands within ours, and soiled underwear, and smears of poo we don’t realise are there until it’s too late and social alienation is, once again, inevitable.

Did I mention we carry guilt? I still don’t know the names of Little Brother’s daycare teachers. I keep meaning to look that up.

And on Mother’s Day, we carry around handmade gifts and hopeful expectations that we’ll be recognised, that we’ll be seen, that maybe we’re not doing the whole damn thing wrong.

And maybe a bit of hope for some time away. During which we’re not touched. By anyone.

Which is why (along with a concerted effort to pre-empt a breakdown similar to last year’s) I told TH in no uncertain terms that this year, what I’d really like for Mother’s Day is a hotel room by myself in the city. And I got it, y’all. Thankfully, I have a partner who thinks handling live turds in the hand is as gross and #notmagical as I do, so he gets it. Also, he has a vested interest in my not going insane and blowing this popsicle stand. So on Saturday night I found myself in a warm and glowing room at the Sheraton where a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of champagne awaited me. (Note to Jesus: if heaven is supposed to be better than this, then you have your work cut out for you.)

(And note to you, readers: I am not bragging. Please understand the point here: I NEEDED A BREAK OR I WAS GOING TO GO CRAZY. We just completed a whirlwind trip across the world and back, right after a whirlwind move across the world, and I was reclaiming some space. Some sanity. It was a luxury and trust me, this is not lost on me. Which is why I’m considering starting a charity that provides mums with hotel rooms when their anxiety meds run out. I’ll keep you posted.)

I almost cried when I entered the bathroom and saw all that space that was for me, just MEEEEE!!! Compare it to our bathroom at home, whose own space is constantly exploited by two small bodies that hover around it constantly as I try to squeeze out a wee to the sound of screams. Heaven.

I wrote for two hours with champagne by my side, and then I met a friend downstairs for dinner. And this introvert who values her time alone found a gift in the next three hours, during which I spilled red wine all over myself (#nailingit) and deepened a growing relationship with some like-minded talk and laughter. Then I went back upstairs, drank another glass of champagne, and watched Ghostbusters (#nailedit). (Did I mention I shared a bottle of champagne with another mum the night before and she’s amazing? CHAMPAGNE FOR THE WIN!)

The next morning I managed the logistics of shoving all my stuff into my bags and carrying a bouquet of blooms to boot. The bags hung heavily off my shoulders and the flowers weighed in my arms like a baby as I walked through downtown Sydney. I was sweating when I arrived across from the church, in the park where I was meeting my family. And it wasn’t lost on me, the wonderful yet groaning weight of all the stuff, all the love, that I had to carry.

We carry so much. We carry dreams for our children, and disappointment over dreams dashed. We carry diagnoses, and fear over our own health and theirs. We carry empty spaces inside us waiting to be filled with the hope of new life, and we carry the little deaths that come each month when that doesn’t happen. We carry the phantom kicks that remind us of what pregnancy felt like and the ensuing wonder over whether we’re really done with that chapter (don’t worry, TH, we are). We carry confusion and ambivalence and regret and hope, and we carry it all every. single. day. We carry it to sleep, often waking up with it and the little ones who give birth to it lying right beside us. We carry, and we persist, because this is what we do. It’s how we go on living. It sucks, and it’s amazing, and the only thing lying between those extremes is…oh, just the mundanity of every day of life.

Oh, and we carry tunes. Recently LB asked me to sing a song about dinosaurs, and of course the only one I could think of was the classic below. I sang it for him, and then TK joined us in the car later that day, so I sang it for them, and now it’s the only GD thing they ever want to hear. This morning, in the middle of the upheaval and my pleas to get into the car, I urged TK to open the door. A second later, I heard him singing.

“Open the door, get on the floor, everybody do the dinosaur.”

I looked at him. “Are you singing the dinosaur song?” And he grinned back at me, and the morning and all its sins were redeemed and atoned for, and a dinosaur song became holy. And tonight, I’ll carry that to bed with me along with all the other baggage, as TK and LB do that thing where they whisper without knowing it in their drifting off to sleep: Mommy.

Coming Home(s)

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Atlanta, New York, Sydney…y’all ready? Let’s do this.

SYD–>ATL
What’s more fun than fourteen hours in the air with your two small children, I ask? That would be fourteen hours with your two small children when they only sleep for two. And y’all, I was ready. I was packing. I had phenergen and liquid melatonin for them, Xanax for me. We got on board that flight and a few hours in we pulled the shades, forced the medicine down, and said nighty-night. And two hours later, my #preciousoffspring responded, “Good morning, bitches.” Another dose of phenergen couldn’t even take them down. Of course, as soon as they fell asleep, I downed my Xanax with some Shiraz because #flightrules, so I awakened to The Kid tugging on my arm saying he needed to use the toilet (#bullshitartist), and I spent the rest of the flight recovering from my stupor.

It was a great way to kick off the trip, is what I’m saying.

We spent a night in LA sleeping, then all my men spent the next day sleeping as well while I watched a Twilight marathon from my bed. In the late afternoon, we spent a couple of hours riding the elevators and escalators because #hotelrules, then we all passed out again after dinner. The next day, we landed in Atlanta.

Weird. Weird walking into a house that was home for six years and is a place to visit now. Weird having some of our stuff there, some packed in boxes, and some across the ocean. Weird feeling out of place in my own bedroom.

But also…wonderful? Wonderful seeing dear friends. Wonderful sitting on a couch across from someone who knows me and reminds me that tension is a passing note, because we’re being held. Wonderful taking the bread and wine from another friend. Wonderful watching the kids descend upon their “Atlanta toys” like it was Christmas morning (also, #spoiled). Wonderful hearing The Husband and my parents talking at the dinner table while I watched TV with the boys on the couch. Wonderful sharing life again, briefly, with people we love.

And wonderful leaving for the next trip home…

ATL–>NYC
What’s better than visiting the city that grew you, the city where you found grace and got engaged? Visiting without diarrhoea or a hangover. BOOM (#nailedit).

Against all odds, I can breathe in New York. This antisocial-to-a-fair-degree introvert thrives being surrounded by people she doesn’t have to talk to. This is my space. And there are signs of home all over it: the briny smell of the East River, the incessant honking of cabs, the motion of a sea of people, and then…my stuff. I revisited my old street, 29th, and saw it again, and for the first time. There was my building, and the dry cleaner downstairs, and the preserved colonial home across the street, and the why-won’t-it-die bar from hell on the corner. But there was also the fire station I walked by every day without noticing it, and now I thought immediately of TK, how much it would thrill him to be that close to the engines. I saw the playground I walked past every day, and through often on the way to hit tennis balls against the wall next to it, and I imagined Little Brother conquering its slides. Things I barely noticed before, and now I imagined the most significant pieces of my life populating them.

We went to dinner. We saw a haunting and wonderful show that I’m still processing (I spilled wine on myself there and cried; #unrelated). We bounced from conferences bars to apartments to rooftops to restaurants in our solemn but exhausting vow not to let a little thing like and ocean make us disappear from people’s lives. I spoke and didn’t self-combust (or shit myself). We passed through, but deeply, which…is life, I think? Also I got a cupcake.

ATL–>SYD
“Not to be rude, but is he going to be quiet on this flight?” she asked me. “Because I have a meeting after we land and I need to get some sleep.”

I imagine punching that asshole in the face when I recollect her question, but in real life I just turned away and back to TK, who was behaving JUST GREAT, THANKS ten minutes into the boarding process of our return trip. One great thing about having kids is that they drastically reduce the number of f*cks you have left to give; I am down to zero currently. Another way of putting it? They turn your face–sometimes literally, damn them and their inability to understand personal space–toward what matters. For the next fourteen hours, I remained glued to TK, even while sleeping. As TH and LB slept a few rows back (because #dearhusband and #mamaneedsbusinessclass and #happywifehappylife), TK uttered, “Mommy. Come over here,” and we piled into the same seat to sleep. We took trips to the bar together for snacks; we (I) used the bathroom in tandem. And, wonder of wonders, it wasn’t totally suffocating. Because here’s what they don’t write in the expat handbook: your heart will be stretched across thousands of miles, your sense of split homes will feel like split personalities, and you will be jet lagged with regularity and beyond belief. BUT. You will truly know your family again, and for the first time. And when your son, who is perched between your legs watching TV in a reclined seat while you try to sleep, turns and stares deeply into your eyes then explodes into a heart-bursting grin, you will finally know where home is.

And then you land. And you see it again and for the millionth time, the road that goes to your house. And the four of you walk in and breathe again.

TK goes to school the next day with that same grin, greeted with hugs and shouts. “James! You’re finally back,” the handyman says with a smile as he passes by, and I remember that we haven’t been here long, but we are known. I go to a wine night with some of the mums from his class, and I am slowly and awkwardly (as is my custom) getting to know them. The boys go to their first joint swim lesson and cheer each other on and don’t cry once, and when we’re done TK spots the glass elevator on the way out–the one that looks strangely similar to the one from his pool back in Atlanta–and just like that, we still get to take end-of-lesson lift rides.

The boys and I emerge from the car one afternoon and walk to the top of the concrete steps that lead down to the beach below, and as I gather their shoes and prepare to descend with them, LB announces, “HERE WE ARE!” It hits me, with the chill of an autumn breeze, that until now, I’d always visited the beach in warmer months. Now I will experience it in the winter. And every other season. Now I will really know it, for the first time. All of it. We are being held, taken through the liturgy that is life in all its old and new, words and prayers, known and unknown, and we are showing up for every season. For now, this home. And here we are.