Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Just Breathe

There was a time in my life, when it seemed that there was time. How it seemed to exist, lots of lovely hours, lying there for the taking. In retrospect, those hours take on a voluptuous quality, a box of rich chocolates, to be unwrapped and selfishly savored one by one. Of course, it's so easy to romanticize that now, the irony being that at the time, I neither appreciated such leisure, nor did I put it to any particularly productive use. If it were a box of chocolates, I must have squandered those hours worrying about getting fat or indigestion. Looking back, I spent a lot of time worrying about things that now seem to have little significance and less importance. Of course, that's a perspective I could only have a few years down the road.

I find it surprisingly difficult to write about my children. On the one hand, there's the concern for their own privacy and then there's the fact that the parent-child relationship is one of those cultural themes so prone to mystification that it's usually best treated in fiction.

What do I remember from the first year of my twins' life? I mostly remember trying to survive the physical and emotional exhaustion that seemed to reach a level of perma-fatigue. It's amazing how quickly you forget (my daughter was three and a half when the twins were born) the way young babies can cry incessantly, even when you've done everything in your power to soothe them. Sometimes the only way to keep from going crazy was to draw a warm bath, get inside, keep the water running and hold my head under water for periodic intervals. You learn to appreciate simple things like the miraculous quality of silence, that moment when they eventually tire themselves out and fall asleep. There's no logic, no solution to that kind of crying.

The sort of education I received was worse than useless in this respect. I had been taught that the most respect-worthy thing a woman could do was to have a great career. There was not much said about raising children. That, by default, was most likely something any poor idiot could achieve. Or worse yet, there was that most pernicious myth foisted on women of my generation--Superwoman, the have it all girl. Ah what new and exciting possibilities for guilt she brings up. At least the women of earlier generations could blame society for limiting their options. With Superwoman, there's nobody to blame but yourself, if you're a working mother and you feel like you're doing a less than stellar job in both categories. Damn you Cokie Roberts, for the speech you gave when I graduated from Wellesely, all about your memories of your mother, the overachiever--the Congresswoman with a baby in one arm, drafting some important piece of legislation, dictating the menu for a fancy dinner party and redecorating the Georgetown mansion all at once. No, Cokie Roberts, you did not help.

Sometimes I did not need to block out the noise; I had the energy to navigate those difficult moments with my children. I discovered quite by accident that my baby boys liked to dance. They were small enough that I could hold one in the baby sling and the other in my arms--you'll try a lot of things to soothe fussy babies and occasionally you find one thing that works, which doesn't mean that it works for all children and not all the time for your children, but sometimes it clicks. Maybe the rhythm calmed them, maybe the twirling just made them dizzy. With abandon, we danced to Kate Bush's "Eat the Music."

Like a pomegranate
Insides out

All is revealed
Not only women bleed

Take the stone out
Of the mango
You put it your mouth
And pull a plum out

...Split 'em open
With devotion

You put your hands in
And rip their hearts out...

The song brings to mind King Lear and his "Pelican children." Do they cannibalize us or do we cannibalize them? Raising children is messy, carnal, both unnatural and natural. It is the gallows humor of having a sick child the day after Thanksgiving when there's one doctor on call and half the parent-child population of the city shows up, the fact that this is almost certainly where the older child picked up the flu she came down with three days later. It is the moment when you have one twin bleeding like a stuck pig from the toe and the other twin is knocking down a tower of CDs and your first thought is to take care of the bleeding child, not so much because he seems to be in pain or bothered by the blood (he isn't) but because you don't want to clean bloodstains from the wool carpet and you know you can always pick up the CDs later. It is those undignified conversations you can't believe you have with the older child. "No, you may not have another pack of shark bites. Well maybe you can have another pack of shark bites, but we have to do all the errands at KMart without you once asking for something. Got it?...No, it's not about what you want. It's about what you need. You asked for exactly four things at KMart. One, two, three, four, that's right...Ok, you can have shark bites when we get home, if you'll just be quiet in the car."

It's the time that creeps up on you, a peace that has to be found in between the bleeding toe, the crashing CDs, the bleating and the shark bites, that moment when you all lie on the floor exhausted but somehow happy...and you forget about getting things done and just breathe.

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