Once, while sitting on the D.C. Metro, I watched a graduate student wearing horn-rimmed glasses espouse the virtues of Marxism to a young co-ed. He stood over her, his arms and mouth revealing the sharpness of youth, the keen conviction of young minds. The co-ed watched silently, ignoring the young man’s unzipped fly.
“I heard you lecturing your friend the other day,” I said when I ran into him again.
“Oh, yeah?” He leaned back, prepared to explain Marxism to me. “What did you think?”
I leaned in and whispered, “I think you’ll grow out of it.”
I reflect on that moment sometimes, when I’m changing a child’s poopy pants or cutting grapes at the sink. I remember how the young man stormed off, afraid, perhaps, that I was right. After all, my convictions and righteousness have withered with age and parentage, replaced with something like resignation or cynicism. Or perhaps it’s the result of carrying too many awkwardly-shaped toys from one room to the next every night, only to find them scattered again in the morning. Is this what we call wisdom? I wonder.
Recently my husband and I spent our first overnight away from our two-year-old triplets, at a downtown hotel in the town where I now live. My in-laws stayed at our house so the girls could sleep in their own beds and I could provide all their meals. One of my triplets is milk allergic and the other two are corn-allergic, which means they cannot consume 99% of what the average household does each day: packaged food dusted with cornstarch to prevent caking and sticking, canned tomatoes preserved with citric acid, frozen dinners filled with “natural flavoring” or “vitamin enriched” ingredients.
I prepared for our twenty-four staycation by cooking three from-scratch, corn-free meals, six sippy cups of various dairy and nut milks, and three snacks with options. I scrubbed our master bathroom, ripped the sheets from our bed as soon as we woke to wash them, and later made the bed while three toddlers yelled for me downstairs. I labeled the different-sized pullups and diapers, marking them with black-Sharpie initials, and laid out pajamas and clothes for the next day.
I worried whether my in-laws would be worry free. I considered they might use the wrong sauce with corn syrup, give raw milk to my allergic child and corn-laden formula to the corn-allergic child. I imagined that whatever food I prepared would grow soggy in the refrigerator and that no one would eat or sleep well. I thought about my father-in-law, with his old-school meat and potatoes pallet, and whether he would like what I had prepared. I lay awake over it all, realizing that the “getting away” was starting to get away from me.
We left during naptime, running errands we hadn’t been able to without childcare. We checked into the hotel and showered, and I could feel the beginnings of a migraine, the result of having not stopped for three days.
“Did you bring Advil?” my husband asked.
“No,” I said, realizing I also hadn’t packed a razor, makeup, hair brush, or the correct bra. I hadn’t thought of me at all in my myriad of preparations. I blamed Mom Brain: the imprecision and fogginess, all hyper-focused on childcare and hypo-focused on self-care—in my case, a head haunted by a giant wood pecker, waiting for a moment of respite to drill away. It wasn’t simply forgetfulness. A mother can no more forget her world than she can find solace in it.
We walked down to the lobby bar for cocktails and oysters and then on to dinner a mile-and-a-half away, planning to stop somewhere to buy ibuprofen. We never found a drugstore. Instead, we ambled in the direction of dinner, enjoying the freedom of it, the not needing to be somewhere. A breeze found its way to us as we crossed an overpass, and we huddled close.
At dinner, we sat across from each other for the first time in months. I ordered the chef’s five-course tasting menu which came with beer pairings, and my husband ordered a steak entrée, an appetizer of pea soup, and a side of potatoes. At a table near the wall a couple with two toddlers ate dinner. I had met them in the bathroom, the two-year-old chattering about having pooped in the potty and wanting to tell her dad. I thought of my girls, then—of how few times they’d been out to a restaurant like this. I wondered whether they were eating one of my meals, enjoying dinner at home without me.
“He’s outpacing you,” our waitress said as my husband finished another beer. My headache had dissipated, and for a moment I convinced myself it hadn’t been real.
“I should get drinking then,” I said as I would have before children, on a summer vacation.
“Do you think they’ll sleep tonight?” my husband said. I shrugged and turned my attention to a couple on their first or second date, sitting on their hands, worried about the next sentence.
I woke that night at two a.m. with pounding in my left temple. Streetlights blared through the room and dug through my eyelids. Up became down. The toilet seemed impossibly far as I dove to vomit burning alcohol. I washed cool water over my face and neck and lay back down to sleep it off, but the headache only grew, waking me again in the morning with a knocking and nausea so terrible I cried. I wanted to escape my body. I wished so badly to be home, just dealing with three toddlers. Through it all I even considered that this might even be the purpose of any cathartic adventure—to want to return home, to wish for a life once thought stifling.
“They didn’t even ask for you,” my mother-in-law said when we arrived at naptime. I discovered that other preparations went unnoticed, too. My in-laws hadn’t slept in the bed—in the sheets I made sure to tuck in squarely for them. They hadn’t eaten the meal I’d made with them in mind. When I snuck quietly into my daughter’s room to wake her from nap, I whispered to her, expecting her to jump up at me with her arms uplifted. She looked up, her hair a wild tangle of sleep. “Daddy?” she said.
“No, sweetie. Mommy.”
“I want Daddy.” My head pulsed once. I grabbed for it and winced.
“I missed you,” I said. She cried.
Later, all three fought over his lap. “No, my daddy,” they said to one another, reaching over and around me for him.
I felt like a ghost who’d spent an eternity learning how to knock a photograph off a shelf only to have it blamed on the wind. My head pulsed again. I wanted to run away, this time alone, without having prepped a thousand meaningless things.
I wish I could say I was recharged by our night away. I wish I could say I’d become wiser. I felt only tired and dull. I had woken that morning in a fog, the aftermaths of a migraine, to the chaos of my youngest up too early. After the fluster of holding her when I should have been dressing, I left for work without my breakfast, my wallet, my flash drive.
Without any idea who I was anymore.
Jody Gerbig lives with her husband, triplet toddlers, and dog, in Columbus, Ohio. Her recent work appears in Parent.co, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, and Litro Magazine.