My boys are burrowed in bed like bears in winter, the duvet covering a mound that rises and falls. Tufts of blonde and brown hair peer out from the blankets. I stand over them and close my eyes. I offer up a silent wish, a prayer: “Please let today be better than yesterday. Please help me find a way to stop failing everyone, especially my sons. I don’t know what is wrong with me; I just wish I could do better.”
For a few more seconds, I wait in the eye of the tornado. Why hadn’t someone told me motherhood was so overwhelming? That this incredible force of nature would fling me around and try to spin me into the ground?
One more deep breath and then I read poetry to wake Miles and Jack. Mary Oliver’s words echo as my voice bounces off the walls. My hair is wet and clings to my back. In my hands—the poem and my cell phone. I scroll through messages, ready to tap out responses in between stanzas. It is 7:15, and I have already completed one meeting and drank two cups of coffee.
The bedroom is lined with bookshelves, filled with words unread and spines uncracked. Before I became a solo parent, I was a reader. Once, I was so many things.
And I’m not the black oak tree
which is patience personified.
“Boys. You need to GET UP.” My voice hardens.
“Clothes on, teeth brushed, dogs fed. Breakfast. I need you to get moving.” My voice starts like a Daniel Tiger song and ends like a drill sergeant. I pull down the covers to reveal my boys with their eyes squeezed shut and wearing only Cars underwear.
Miles yanks his side of the bedclothes back up over his head. Jack claws over to his brother and tunnels into the covers. My mind is already moving to what’s next—breakfast. Bowls of Honey-O’s wait on the counter bar flanked by warming glasses of almond milk. Did I leave out spoons? They should know where spoons are if I forgot. Shouldn’t they?
A muffled “Noooooo,” comes from one duvet section where Miles’ brown hair is shaking back and forth. Jack’s blonde hair shootsup to also reveal a forehead, a blue eye, and his voice demanding,“I need you to get me dressed. Where my clothes? Put my clothes on me.”
Miles continues to moan the word “No.” Clean laundry, some of it folded, spills out of a basket dropped in the middle of the room. Dirty clothes tower out of the bin tucked halfway in the closet. Wayward shoes and parts of toys I chose to not pick up are scattered across the floor.
I inhale, close my eyes, and envision my shoulders coming out of my ears and back where they belong.
Nor am I mud nor rock nor sand
which is holding everything together.
“Please guys, I need your help. We have to get to school and I have to get to work.”
Jack’s arm flings over the covers. He slides out of bed with a frown. “I need breakfast. Dress me, Mama.”
Not long ago, my mornings with Jack were consumed by nursing. Each month seemed to bring a different challenge. Some days I could barely wake him to relieve my full breasts before I shoved him into his car seat. Others, he pinched my bare skin as he took long draws, refusing to unlatch long after I needed to be in the shower. For a while, he’d cling to my bra or my shirt, clutching the fabric, winding it between his fingers so that entangling him took as long as pulling his mouth off.
He first dressed himself two years ago, usually with his jean pockets in the front. Now our routine involves his demand: “I need you to pick out my clothes.”
I need, I need, I need. I take another breath. No, I am none of these meaningful things, not yet.
The poetry reading is over and real life rises up to meet me. I run downstairs to see about the spoons. Rounding the corner to the kitchen, I see their handles glinting off the pendent lights. I did remember.
Recently, my dad visited and sat at one of the places where cereal now waits. A cup of coffee steamed in front of him as I made oatmeal. “You’ve had a lot of growth, career-wise, since you became a mom, since their dad left,” he remarked.
I nodded, tightened my grip, and mixed a little harder. The spoon clanked against the bowl, mimicking an alarm bell as I caught sounds of the boys playing upstairs. Their laughter wound down to me like chimes in the wind, and I inhaled slowly as I looked from the oatmeal to my dad. He took a drink and put his cup down. “I think having to manage all of this may be part of what has made you grow so much. You don’t have a choice but to make it all happen and do it well.”
My dad knew about the months I went without child support, the years absent of co-parenting, the calls and visitations skipped, the bruise along a diaper line after one visit. At the same time, I earned a promotion and moved my children across the country.
“Maybe without all of this, you wouldn’t be who you now are.” Dad’s eyes locked with mine before he offered a wry smile, a shrug, and slid off the stool, his book in hand.
Now I realize the poetry book is still in my hand when I go to grab the swim bag, stuffed already with towels and swim trunks, crackers and fruit strips. It’s missing clothes for soccer practice.
I loop the bag over my shoulder and head back to the stairs, which I take two at a time. I recently saw a study from the University of Richmond that watched new mom rats capture crickets four times faster than non-mom rats. In my life it’s not crickets but tasks that I tick through rapidly, sometimes without even realizing I’m doing them.
Today, that means that I didn’t remember putting spoons out or whether I had signed the homework folder. I did have dinner ready for the rest of the week, tucked in large glass containers in the refrigerator, created in early weekend hours before the boys woke. Bills were on autopay, and three tubes of toothpaste sat underneath my bathroom sink. If nothing else, we would have clean teeth.
Even so, the chaos of every morning lingers. The piles of half-folded clothes and dirty laundry, the pleading with the boys to get out of bed as the clock ticks towards my next meeting, the not being sure if I had left breakfast out, only to discover I had done it perfectly. I was always working so hard,trying anything and everything to make our life work. Yet here I still was—rushed, overwhelmed, certain I was failing. What was wrong with me?
“You used to wake up laughing,” I say to my six-year-old, who is out of bed and scowling in front of his dresser. I nab two pairs of shorts and two shirts and shove them in the bag.
“That’s not true!” He barks back. “I don’t remember that.”
I smile, and my whole body softens. When he was a baby, Miles slept glued to me. I’d wake up to him giggling at the ceiling, his feet in his hands, his eyes looking for mine. He always waited for me to join him, coaxing me awake with the best he could offer. I never thought to take video or a photo of those beautiful first moments of our day. It never occurred to me that someday things would be different.
“I’m sure I have something I can show you.” I wave my phone at him.
Months ago I stopped looking at photos or watching the videos I took in the days that ran together after nights of lying awake with a fussy baby and a teething toddler. Then, I often sobbed on the way to work. Not only did crying keep me awake, it was also the only relief I could find. Pulling into the parking lot at work, I’d wipe tears and saliva from my chin, glancing at the back seat to make sure I remembered to drop the boys at daycare. I was terrified I might add another statistic to my name- Children Left to Die: Single Working Mother Forgot Them in the Car – the one that would surely, finally, kill me.
Lately, because my boys started to ask, I forced myself to pull up thousands of photos of finger painting, high chair trays smeared with banana, gummy smiles. Photos that threw me back into those dark days I wasn’t sure we’d live through.
I sit down on the floor in front of the dresser and pull Miles down next to me. He squirms for a moment, and then relaxes into my chest as I wrap my arm around him. My stomach churning, I scroll through videos on my phone and find one from the fall of that first year. Miles was two and Jack, a baby.
Jack is sitting in a high chair, his face split into a smile and his arms in constant motion as he slams his hands into pancake pieces. When one attaches to his fist, he shoves it into his mouth, squealing each time the pancake touches his tongue. My voice comes from behind the camera, and it’s not the sad, sobbing sounds I remember most. Instead, it is high and soft, like music, like a mother who is excited to be home with her children.
“Look at those pancakes! Are they good, Jack? You are doing such a good job eating! Miles, will you sing me that song from school this week?”
Six-year-old Miles now hugs into me, his head nodding.
The video pans from Jack in his high chair to Miles perched on a chair, his thin hair a cloud around his shining face.
“Mama! A song?” His high-pitched two-year-old voice cuts through the video as he slyly smiles and wiggles his shoulders. “Yes, Mi. The bubble gum one? Do you know it, Mama?” He knows the answer.
“I don’t! Will you teach it to me?” My voice is calm, clear as water, and warm, like a place you want to go back to.
On the video, Miles starts to sing, his hand gestures a little jerky, his face serious – you can almost see him thinking as he pauses and catches the camera’s eye to make sure we are all still watching. Jack continues to squeal, and for a moment we seem ordinary, perfect even.
Tears chase each other as I laugh with that mother I forgot I was. I wipe them away with my free arm. My son starts to laugh and bounce with the image of who he was. We were happy, we really were.
“See?” I say as the video ends. He smiles, kisses my arm and reaches towards the dresser to pull out a shirt.
The morning rush passes and like all days, we make it out the door and into the car. Without fanfare, one child is in school and the other, daycare. We did it, and the next phase of my day can start.
The first sob catches me as my heels click alone on the pavement after school drop off. It springs forth as the sun hits my face and for a moment, I am blind. Never would it be any better than this. That couldn’t be true. Could it?
In the car, my crying is a flash flood that tugs at me, and for a moment, I am almost swept away. It recedes as I guide the car down the road, my breathing slowing as I recite to myself, “You are strong, it’s all ok. You are ok. You are doing a good job. Someday, it will be easier.”
Over and over, until I believe.
Oliver, Mary. “I’m Not the River.” Blue Horses. The Penguin Press, 2014. pp. 73.
My mom does everything,” is how her then three-year-old once described Lacey Schmidt. Most days, it feels true. Solo parent to Miles and Jack, Lacey is an HR leader by career, Mom always, and all else in the cracks she can find.