By: Amber Kinser
I have pulled my kitchen table over in front of the fireplace so I don’t have to choose between being fireside and being online. Really, I can do it laptop style but I’ve got several things to do online today and it’s easier on my body (given the toll that holidays, age, and motherhood have taken on it) for me to sit up at the table. The chairs at my kitchen table are unusually high; with my long legs I rarely have trouble having my full foot hit the floor while sitting, but in these chairs I do. So I’ve grabbed a big game of scrabble and thrown it on the floor under the table for elevating my feet. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there somewhere…can’t seem to find it at the moment…would love someone to comment on that and help a sister out here. My Scottish terrier, Fiona, and I are passing the time together as we often do, she a bit full from the M&M chocolate chip cookies she purloined from atop the coffee table and ripped out of their lovingly wrapped packages, a gift from my stepson’s partner, Julie. I am regretting my decision this morning to wait until later to eat them since “later” is now here and they now aren’t. But aside from that loss—and I assure you my body won’t miss the sugar intake, except maybe in terms of withdrawal—I am feeling full, with life and love and family and peace.
My house is quiet and comparatively empty; it’s been neither since mid-week last week. My drinking days have long been over, by a decade now, so any coming New Year festivities don’t do much for me, except as a time for taking inventory and account, some of which I’ll be sharing with you next week. This week I’ll just rest and enjoy the stillness around and within me. I feel fortunate to have access to such stillness, to have even been at home, and not in an airport, for example, during this recent blizzard, variously referred to as Snowmageddon and snOMG among other titles. I didn’t do any traveling and my parents got here before it hit. My sister and her partner and adult children had a bit of rough travel locally—allegedly taking out a mailbox between her house and mine and nearly ending up in a ditch, but all turned out quite well in the end. Any of their damage might well have been exacerbated by the fact that all four of them—adults all—were in their pajamas. You might remember that I am working on simplifying family gatherings, and decided after my summer family reunion this year (which I wrote about here: part 1 and part 2) to simplify the winter holidays. My plan, which we all brilliantly executed if I do say so myself, was to have leftovers on Christmas day and to never get out of our pajamas. It was the most leisurely and wonderful and easy holiday of my adult life. People could arrive whenever they wanted and there was no hassle of everything needing to be hot at the same time, and we ate off of paper plates so there was no big cleanup. Just a lot of sitting and talking and napping and eating. It’s a terrific plan, though perhaps slightly less so if you happen to be loading up your leftovers and presents into a car to haul them across town, all while in your PJs and driving into mailboxes and ditches, so it seems that how “wonderful” and “easy” and “leisurely” it felt was relative. But in any case we did have the leisure to sit around and think up haiku poems, and I have featured them here. Now we have probably polluted the poetic form in some way, perhaps several ways; we only know of the 5-7-5 rule (as the number of syllables for each of three lines). And I couldn’t really swear that even that’s unassailably correct, but that’s what we went with and what I’m sharing here. Someone threw in “boo-yah Christmastime” at one point as their last line and then everyone stole it for their own; I kept calling them copouts as I typed each line they threw out but decided in the end to combine those and make them stanzas in a song.
Here is the gift of amateur holiday haiku, plus a song written in haiku form, from my house’s PJs and Leftovers holiday, to your house:
Snow comes down lightly We’re hoping for a storm to keep us here for days (Grammy and Amber)
Holiday at dads Presents at mom and Mary’s Wow how things have changed (Ashley)
Think and plan and wrap Share the gifts and joy then meet the edge of sadness (Patrick)
Family shapes change Loves, splits, college, work, death, birth People move in, out (Ashley & Amber)
It’s the paper waste, I think, that gets to me most More than spent money. (Amber)
Sister got rain boots Those boots are made for walkin’ Hope she doesn’t see (Tammy)
Hey got a haiku Write it down before it fades Whoop there it goes. Dang. (Chelsea)
Smart phones for us all Grammy has a Blackberry (?!) Can she text us though? (Christopher)
The Boo-yah Holiday Song
No more presents now We opened them this morning Boo-yah Christmastime (Ashley)
Special holidays Jammies are new tradition Boo-yah Christmastime (Tammy)
Purple unicorn Makes the best pillow pet gift Boo-yah Christmastime (Chelsea)
Made matzoh ball soup for him, better than his dad’s Boo-yah Hanukkah (Ashley)
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“If by Serene You Mean…”
By Amber Kinser
My life is a big fat mess of contradictions. Yesterday was illustrative, but really you could pick any day. Any day at all it would be, well, either a bit fat mess, or a big fat mess of contradictions. But probably never not one of those and hardly ever not both. Anyway, so yesterday. I’m sitting on the couch with the fireplace burning, my Scottie dog, named Fiona (Queen of Scots), sitting at my shoulder on the back of the couch; I’m leisurely grading papers, my son’s in the family room watching TV on his holiday break, I’m drinking a hot and robust cup of English Breakfast tea—ball, not bag. The serenity of this image belies the high-pressured deadline confronting me of submitting my final course grades online, particularly in light of the fact that I’ve underestimated (perhaps grossly) the time it would take to read the final papers and calculate final grades so my plan to ‘wrap this up’ in the morning and do some shopping later is a total wash. The clock is ticking, the morning is as good as gone, and I. must. stay. focused.
My son is watching the TV in the other room on surprisingly low volume so I don’t have much in the way of distraction so it’s pretty serene. If by “serene” you mean having a basement that is flooding downstairs and a backhoe in my yard getting ready to dig up all the new ‘landscaping’ (I use the term loosely)we did this spring to get down to the pipes that are busted, and all of this to the tune of a couple grand the week of (our version of) Christmas. And the wet vac humming loudly downstairs sucking up what turned out to be 15 gallons of water (every drop of which I paid for in my oddly high water bills of late—apparently not odd enough to prompt me to figure out what the problem was, mind you, but odd enough for me to think: that’s odd, as I’m authorizing the check) in a desperate attempt to save the 1 year-old carpet that I recently replaced after the LAST *@#^& flood down there caused by a broken water heater. Or something. I can’t remember—all the broken water thingys are starting to blend together in my mind…the slow leak on the icemaker that occurred over the course of months and months creating mold that dudes in hazmat suits had to come in and fix…the day I walked down the basement stairs to find deep water. And a container of lip gloss floating by. I can’t remember if it was ankle-deep or knee-deep but I remember that stinking lipgloss for god’s sake and the thousands of dollars it took to fix the problem of our house sitting atop some water reservoir something or other. All these are different houses, mind you, but wow, I’ve had it with water problems. And that’s what makes me glad I’ve got a leaking in-ground pool. But I digress…
I’m trying not to think of the fact that my parents were here in the midst of the last water fiasco, walking on saturated carpet in the guest room where they stay downstairs and me doing a fair job of not being humiliated by the whole thing. I’m trying not to think of the fact that they’ll be relegated similar circumstances in a couple of days if we can’t fix the current problem. I’m thinking about how much it stunk down there during my parents’ stay—that wet, mildly sour smell, not really offensive so much as just stinking unpleasant. And this thought is awakening my olfactories just enough to note that Fiona, Queen of Scots, still at my shoulder, stinks. So there’s another thing, and another bill I have the fortune of dealing with this very hectic week. But I am pulled from my reverie of stinking carpets and stinking dogs by my son’s entry in the room. “What are you watching in there?” I say, making relaxed conversation in an attempt to trick myself into relaxing and having not learned from my near fatal attempt at relaxed conversation when I asked him last week about the book he was reading. He’s watching Myth Busters—a science show that we both like and he especially likes, largely I think because they do a lot with explosions—and No Dog Left Behind (I’m wishing my dog and her stink could be left behind) which is a show, he tells me, about marines in Iraq rescuing dogs or, to use his summary, “like all these really big guys playing with these little doggies and it’s really cool.” Then suddenly though not surprisingly the conversation switches to “Can I light this candle for you mom?” The trained maternal mind fills in the missing parts: so I can run my fingers through it and burn bits of paper in it which you’ll try to ignore until you can’t anymore and just snap ‘ohmygod what are you—STOP IT!’ “It’s no problem, mom,” he says. “No,” I say, “the only problem is that you are standing there, not dressed, in track pants only [despite what our friend this morning called a ‘balmy 24 degrees’], and there are people we don’t really know coming in and out of our house [trying very hard to make me miss my deadline] and you need to be dressed. “How about if I just stay on the couch with a blanket?” “How about if you get dressed so you can actually get OFF the couch?” The phone rings and it’s my partner and I wave my son off to the upstairs. I recount the uninteresting details, badly, of the copper piping and the ‘pinholes’ caused in this kind of copper piping over time by our city water—I’m pretty excited about the city water in my English Breakfast tea as I hear myself recount—and besides by this point I’m boring myself to death. And anyway the volume of my son’s television shows now seems disturbingly loud so I end the phone call and start to say something to him but then realize that it’s not that the volume on the television that has increased; it’s that the motors on the backhoe and the wet vac have turned off. But before I can tell him to turn it down to accommodate, Fiona has slipped into some psychotic episode, barking crazily at the backhoe guy who, it should be noted, has been here for quite some time but who she keeps seeing another new stranger at the door. Ohmygod, “Fiona! Seriously? Dude is hooking us up here. Back off.”
So about $1400 later the pipe is ostensibly fixed, and if you don’t come too close you can barely tell my yard was hosting backhoe services most recently (pay no attention to that now-crushed liriope). Today the basement doesn’t seem to smell. Images of floating lipglosses and moldy walls are receding. Grades are in (6 minutes late but who’s counting). My partner is taking Fiona to get her hair did. Target let me return the peacoat I bought two months ago and have been meaning to take back every since but could not stinking get there until last night. My holiday shopping and wrapping are in terrific shape and I’ve made round 1 of my annual holiday cheese Danish. The downstairs is still trashed but a lot can happen between now and Friday. Then again, a lot can happen between now and Friday…
I am very tired as I write. I sit with a cup of mango tea staring at my holiday tree, pulled into a nearly trance-like state by my exhaustion. I am looking for inspiration about my blog post and I’m not finding it hanging from the branches on my tree. Money isn’t the only thing that doesn’t grow on trees; ideas don’t either, as it turns out. My feet still hurt from standing at the side of the bed last night for 2 or 3 hours wrapping presents to put under the tree. I’m an excellent wrapper, if I do say so myself; my family has marveled at my skill. I don’t do much in the way of ribbons and bows, any more than I do much in the way of side dishes; but on wrapping and entrees, I’ve cultivated quite the talent. Pulling, tightening, and—most of all—creasing. These are the tricks to impressively wrapped presents; it’s the stuff underneath all the accoutrements (if you have any, which I don’t) that distinguishes levels of wrapping expertise. Plus standing. Lots of standing. (Either that or lots of bending, say if you’re wrapping on the floor, but I can’t take hours of bending even more than I can’t take hours of standing at a tall bedside.) So I’m thinking about all this as I stare at my tree and the presents it shelters. And I’m thinking about the tension in my shoulders, a residual effect of driving over the mountain yesterday trying to get home to my kids after being delayed in my return by a snow storm. The roads were technically not bad, but I was being hyper mindful of the seemingly melted snow—I once drove into a snow-covered cornfield in Indiana after a blizzard and I learned then that patches of road that are technically not that bad can in fact be that bad—so the roads yesterday might well have been covered with ice and snow for all the difference it made in my anxiety level then (though lowered slightly by a good two hours of Beatles CDs) and the tension in my shoulders now. And all of this is making me think about how motherhood is so very embodied. So much of carework and tenderness and sternness and affection is rooted in the body. Motherhood does have its way with a woman’s body.
I asked my son last week if he had any tests; he said he did have one on the book he was reading. I wanted to be sure he was on top of his game (I think that should actually be phrased ‘at the top of his game’ but whatever) so I asked him to talk with me as we drove home about his book. And he did. An hour later he was still talking, scene by scene, character detail by character detail. By now we were home and I was chopping and measuring in the kitchen as he continued to narrate and then began acting out scenes. I was quite proud that he had connected so deeply with his schoolwork and so tapped at the end of my day that I wasn’t sure I was going to make it till we got to the last chapter. I thought I was being so clever in challenging him to prove that he was ready for his test; it didn’t occur to me that he might have ample evidence—like 90 minutes worth—of said proof. The challenge to the physical limits of my body that evening—hearing, attending, manual preparation of our food, standing at the kitchen counter—offer up another example the bodily demands of mothering. I sit here on the couch with my laptop looking at my tree, trying not to look past it out the window at the darkness on my front porch. I’m trying not to notice the darkness on my front porch because it will remind me of how it should be lit but isn’t—only half of my lighted holiday garland seems to be working and it’s the half that can be seen from the room where I currently am not. And I could fix it, I suppose, but I don’t think my body could take it, requiring as it does my removing the whole garland from the banister around my porch, hoping my Florida girl bones will survive the 15 minutes it would take to do so given that the temperature this morning was 5 degrees (please know that I am not even sure what the phrase “5 degrees” really even means, but I suspect that it has something to do with moving quickly and simultaneously being able to maneuver the garland up and over and around various poles and spindles in all the garb I’ll have to wear out there), lugging it inside, unwrapping the lights…blah blah blah, too horrible to think about right this exact second.
So I’m highly motivated to keep my attentions focused on my now even more lovely tree. And as I watch it I think about that ornament I made with my daughter when she was five. And then I think about wheeling her in her wagon to preschool, and the French toast sticks I handed her in a paper cup with syrup for one of our trips to school and how guilty I felt then for all the hurriedness and non-nutritional value—guilt which remained with me until she wrote in junior high school about our trek that day as one of her favorite memories. I’ve wasted more vital energy on guilt like that and surely wish I could have known earlier how to let myself off the hook. But in any case, I was trying to get us outside a little bit and trying to get myself some exercise of some sort which I had such a hard time doing when I had young children in tow. So hard to attend to my body’s needs. Then and now.
And as I look at this tree, my eyelids drooping ever more as I move my eyeballs from the tree to the laptop screen and back again, I think about that “Baby’s First Christmas” ornament that I got in honor of my son those years ago, and several months before that the emergency C-section two weeks early, and the trouble we had breastfeeding. And the trouble I had lactating—in front of my class in my first weeks of school as a new professor—the milk let down when I called the house just before class and he started crying in the background and my body responded with milk. Much like the time when my daughter was an infant and I went to the grocery store without her; a baby was crying several aisles over and my body responded with milk. We don’t have to feed ALL the crying babies, I thought, just our own! And now I’m at the end of post and the end of my day and the end of my ability to think anymore or keep my eyes open. I need to go tell my son goodnight and that the electric guitar riffs will need to subside for tonight because this mama must sleep. The maternal body, lived in and on and through, challenged and pulled from, filled up when I drink in my children’s smell, soothed when I touch and am touched by them, then challenged and pulled from again, lived in and on and through. Maybe I’ll fix the garland tomorrow.
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I spent the better part of last Friday at a doctoral thesis defense at York University. (As I write this on Saturday, I’m stranded at the Pearson airport for 7 hours in Toronto trying to return home, but that’s another story.) May Friedman wrote a fabulous and insightful study of “mommyblogging” and I was the external reviewer on her thesis committee. It was an afternoon of courageous thinking and ideas and I loved being part of it. One of the ideas that surfaced, in fact as a result of May’s insights, was about maternal ambivalence. In particular, she talked about ambivalence as a form of empowerment. One of the committee members inquired about whether being ambivalent could function as empowering for women. May, soon to be Dr. Friedman, argued that it could. I agree. This is a point I have been trying to make in my own writing. So many mothers have a very difficult time trying to combat social messages that mothering is nothing but beautiful and magical and serene, that motherhood is, as Jennifer Gilbert wrote in Friedman’s co-edited anthology, “all of the goodness of chocolate pudding and fluffy kittens put together, but with none of the funny aftertaste.”
First of all, I remain unconvinced that motherhood is all that. But even in its terrific moments it’s also interwoven with complexity and difficulty and hardship of one kind or another–physical, spiritual, financial, emotional. And this is no less the case with our children than it is with any other given person with whom we have a relationship, as Friedman noted last Friday. Human relationships are complicated. We get annoyed by people we love; we question the wisdom or the benefit of relating with particular people we care about; we wonder what life would have been like if we had had different parents, or siblings, or girlfriends/boyfriends, or bosses. We don’t NOT question or wonder such things about our kids just because they’re our kids. So I have tried, and do try, to write in a way that works to reveal my own ambivalence about mothering. My desire is to add my voice to the chorus—however small or muffled it may be—of women who confess that our humanity extends even to relationships that are deemed sacred and untouchable by that humanity. Even to those relationships branded ‘unconditional.’ Even to those relationships to which we are fiercely devoted. Even to the mother-child relationship. My hope is to help amplify this chorus, as some other bloggers, like Ayelet Waldman and Heather Armstrong have a history of doing, and like Laura Carroll and Lucy Cavendish did earlier this year, so that when mothers inevitably feel about mothering what relating humans feel about relating with other humans, they don’t get wiped out by it and are instead positioned to work through or with their complex responses. It seems that frequently, when mothers admit to complex human feelings about motherhood, they feel compelled to qualify it with: “it’s all worth it though!” (and if they don’t go there their commenters surely will), as in Capitol Mom’s recent post. And this policing and erasure of women’s ambivalence functions to redirect the discussion toward the insistence on perpetual happiness in mothering, which supports the argument that mothers are generally expected to not have human feelings toward about their lives as mothers.
Rather than be shamed into silence or shocked into self-loathing or shackled by denial, we can be exonerated from all of that and can live truthfully and fully. My hope is that, as more of us admit that mothering is a messy, complicated thing emotionally, more of us will be equipped to deflect the feelings of inadequacy that surface when we feel what we suspect a mother “shouldn’t” feel, or can’t accomplish what a mother “should.” From our audacious confrontation with our ambivalence and our confession that some days we feel deluged by, some days delighted by, some days deleted by motherhood—we can parent more freely, and live unfettered.
When I was young, and I don’t mean just as a kid or teen but as a younger adult, I think I was held hostage by my ideas of what, for example, a partnership should look like. These are ideas I didn’t just create from my own revelries, mind you; I had lots of help in creating my ‘hostage situation.’ Like cultural silence about what love and sex are or could be for one thing, and from films, children’s books, song lyrics, religion, and television to name a few more. I was held captive by these ideas. So I had developed no skills for complex relationship management other than repressing my feelings till they nearly ate me alive or drinking them to numbness or acting out in self-destructive ways or, my personal favorite (still), running myself so ragged and spreading myself so unbelievably thin that I scarcely had any energy left to feel anything. If I could have known, really known, that human relationships, even family-based ones, even love-based ones—perhaps especially these—were by definition characterized by conflicted feelings, I would have been able to talk through some of my thinking and emotion, get advice from other people, allow myself to be human without having to repress, or drink, or act out, or work myself to a frenzy in the hopes of erasing my conflict or ambivalence. Or project my sense of terrible humanity onto the people I care about and then resent them for it.
I imagine that there are mothers, lots of mothers, who are working very hard to avoid confronting their ambivalent feelings about motherhood. And I’ve a feeling that if the chorus of women who are confronting them were amplified all the more, we’d see a great surge of energy in the maternal stratosphere—energy that’s no longer wasted and pointless because it’s been redirected into fertile and fruitful arenas—that could infuse women’s identities and relationships and lives with a degree of power and strength and force the likes of which we have never seen.