17 years

This month, Jeff and I will celebrate 17 years of marriage.  Seventeen years sounds like a really long time, and it makes me feel both old and awed.  It is tempting to feel a sense of accomplishment, but I suspect there is no room for that sort of pride in the daily work of marriage, which, in my experience, seems to require high doses of humility, grace, and forgiveness.  When we first got married, had you asked me what I thought our lives would look like after almost two decades, I am not sure I would have even been able to call up a mental picture for you.  When you’re starting out at something, 17 years sounds like a really long time.  When you look behind you, it feels like the blink of the eye, and you stand there wondering where the time went.  It feels like we have been married forever, and yet it feels like just yesterday that I walked down the aisle to my groom.

We were just kids when we got married, really, both 23 years old at the time.  I remember when we got engaged, my parents and all their friends would shake their heads and say, “but you’re just so young to get married!”  We felt really indignant when we heard these comments.  I mean, we had both finished our undergraduate education (Jeff graduated a mere 2 weeks before our wedding, I had graduated and been a working woman for 2 years at that point, so worldly I was).  Lots of our friends hadn’t even waited until they finished school to get married, finishing out their senior year in the “married housing” dorm.  My dad almost lost his mind about how we could possibly support ourselves.  But I had a little apartment in the upper part of a home that cost me $400 per month in rent and utilities.  We bought a second car and took on a second car insurance payment.  Other than that, especially compared to present day, our bills were pretty minimal and our expectations for grandiose living were very low.  Aside from the stifling heat that overtook our small apartment in the summer and my ongoing power struggles with the landlady who lived downstairs, we were happy there, and we felt like we had everything we needed.

There is lots of scientific research out now that indicates that your frontal lobe, important as it is in higher-level decision making and executive function, doesn’t even fully develop until your mid- to late twenties.  So I think about that time in our lives as a time where we literally grew up together.  It is easy to romanticize those years, but I remember they weren’t always easy.  We had enough money to get by, but it wasn’t much.  We used to joke in those years that we were experiencing the “poorer” part of our “for richer or poorer” wedding vow.  Both of us took our turns in grad school, launched our careers, endured a long and frustrating process to obtain our green cards, and amidst it all we were learning all of the important lessons that inevitably come when you weave two people together with all of their individual goals, desires, and expectations.

When we were newlyweds, we would talk about what life would be like after we had been married for 10 years.  It sounded so far away, and we agreed that taking a trip to Hawaii would be the best way to celebrate such a milestone.  Fast-forward to our 10-year anniversary in 2009.  After a lengthy battle with infertility, we had a 2 and 1/2 year old and a 7 month old.  Needless to say, nobody was going to Hawaii.  We managed to pawn the kids off on my parents and stay in a hotel in downtown Toronto for 2 nights.  This started a downward spiral of anniversary celebrations that took a backseat to all of the daily madness that sets in when you have a young family, and there is no time or money to plan for a relaxing, romantic getaway in a month packed full of end-of-year school activities, extracurricular activities, Memorial Day parties, yard work, pool opening, and the like.

Anniversary gift-giving has also become problematic.  Pretty much anything we would buy for one another would just come out of our monthly budget, so you can’t just go hog wild on gifts.  Also at this point, if there is something either one of us needs, we usually will just go buy it if funds allow.  For instance, Jeff just bought his umpteenth bike last month.  After 17+ years of buying birthday, Christmas, Valentine’s, and anniversary gifts for my man, I am just clean out of original ideas.  I looked up the traditional anniversary gifts given by year of marriage, which wasn’t much help.  At 15 years, you are traditionally supposed to give crystal, and at 20 years you give china.  I know that my husband would love to receive both of these things.  However, there are no traditional gift suggestions for the years that lie between 15 and 20.  So I guess you give crystal and then save up for 5 years for some china.  Or maybe we should save up to go to China?  Hmmm.  Anyhow, this year I settled on a public declaration of my love in blog form, and also a card which I procured from Walgreens for $3.99.  I will save the card until the actual day though, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise.

And so, here we are.  Most likely we will ring in our 17th year with dinner and a movie, not unlike the majority of our date nights.  Yes, it is a little sad, but at this point we are pretty comfortable with being boring like that.  Because the joy of it is that when we do get a babysitter and a quiet table for two, we get to catch up with each other like old friends.  I get to rediscover why I liked this guy in the first place, the one who sold his bike to buy my engagement ring.  I get to see how that boy I married is growing and changing before my eyes, and I get to cheer him on while he does it.  And I am not exactly the same girl he married all those years ago.  He may have gotten a little more than he bargained for, honestly.  But he surprises me every day by loving me anyway.  Now I just need to teach him to pick up his socks and laugh at my jokes.


My kids are in bed right now, and I am on my couch, feeling guilty.  We had such a good day, we really did.  We had fun together, and I even had a little time to myself.  Then the “witching hour” came, that time of day when we are all tired, and nobody listens the first time, and it takes a ridiculously long time to brush teeth and put on pajamas, and I turn into an ugly two-headed monster and start yelling and tossing out threats.  Thirty minutes later, when all is quiet, teeth are finally brushed, pajamas are on, eyes puffy with tears, the veil of guilt comes down and colors my memory of our whole day.  I have trouble remembering all the sweet moments, the fun, and even the mundane stuff of our day, and all I can see is that moment I got ugly.  What if that moment stands out above all the good stuff for my kids too, the same way it does for me?  I feel heavy with the weight of that thought.

I have struggled with maternal guilt from the moment I knew I was pregnant with my son.  I didn’t give up coffee.  I ate lunch meat.  I think I inhaled paint fumes.  I had to take Vicodin for a week in my first trimester.  Once he was born I felt guilty if I held him too much, or not enough.  Breastfeeding didn’t work out.  I went back to work and left him with a babysitter.  Did he even know I was his mother, or did he think the babysitter was his mother?  Sometimes (OK–more than sometimes) I cleaned the house instead of playing with him.

The second baby came, and I felt guilt for not giving her my undivided attention, because I also had a toddler to take care of.   I didn’t breastfeed (again).  I went back to work (again).  I have never been the patient, calm, June Cleaver/Mrs. Brady hybrid of a mom that I always hoped I would be.  Turns out I hate crafts and birthday parties and playing pretend.  There seems to be endless targets at which I can throw my guilt-darts.

I have never met a mother that didn’t have some kind of guilt complex.  For me, motherhood and guilt are inextricably linked, to the point that it is hard for me to tell where one ends and the other begins. My husband does not suffer this problem, as I suspect most men don’t.  It is like the first “X” in my chromosomal makeup gives me the instinct to nurture, and the second “X” stands by critiquing my shortcomings as a nurturer.  What I wouldn’t give for a “Y” chromosome sometimes, if for no other reason than to get rid of that noise in the background.

I experience guilt in the same way that I experience the old, ratty quilt that sits folded up on our ottoman.  I made that quilt years ago, and it doesn’t match with any of our furniture anymore.  But in the evening when I (finally) sit down to read or watch TV, I reach for my favorite quilt to throw over my legs.  Even in the summer when it is warm, and I don’t really need a blanket, I feel incomplete sitting on the couch without its familiar weight on me.  If someone else is using it, I can’t quite get comfortable.  None of our other blankets feel right.

My guilt about my shortcomings as a mother cover me in the same familiar way.  I reach for them time and time again, like some kind of security object.  I don’t really understand why.  This blanket of guilt that I pull up around myself is grey and itchy, it makes me sweat, and I know deep down that I don’t really need it.  It is not truly serving any of my needs.  But I don’t really know what to do with myself, how to be a mom at all, without that constant hum in the background that I am just not…enough.

I am as enlightened as any other 21st century 40-something who has done her time in therapy.  I know how to step back and reframe those guilt-ridden moments.  I know that by working outside the home I am setting an example for my kids that a woman can be a valuable contributor to her family’s financial well-being.  I am teaching my daughter that she can get an education and be whatever she wants to be.  I am teaching my son about gender equality.  I am teaching them both about work ethic, and that sometimes you have to go to work even if you would rather be doing something else, because it benefits the people you love.

When, out of utter exhaustion, I choose to read a book on the couch instead of entertaining them in every free moment, I am teaching them that they cannot always rely on someone else to amuse them.  I am teaching them the importance of finding something you love and doing it, even if the people around you are doing their own thing.  I am teaching them that not every single moment of your day has to be scheduled or packed with activities.

When I can’t show up to every school function, maybe I am teaching them that sometimes you have to pick and choose and prioritize, because life is busy and you can’t be everywhere all the time.  I hope I am teaching them that it takes a village to raise a family, and that it is OK to reach out to other people to help with babysitting, carpools, and the like.  When they grow up, maybe they will see that I couldn’t do it all by myself, and that I couldn’t be everywhere at once, and perhaps their internal dialogue will be just a little gentler than mine.

I know all these things, and I can talk myself through it.  But it is exhausting, this swimming upstream, every day beating back the guilty thoughts and feelings.  Reframing takes a whole lot of energy that sometimes, I just don’t have.  And reframing per se isn’t really the issue as I see it.  The problem for me is, how do I stop (or at least minimize) this powerful undercurrent of guilt?  How do I keep it from pulling me under?  Can I hope to do better than just keep my head above water?



This is gonna be fun

The other day I had to run some errands with Leah in tow.  It was kind of gloomy and rainy, and errands are a drag, so I thought a little upbeat music would make it more fun.  You all know I love me some Taylor Swift, but she wasn’t doing it for me that day, for some reason.  This was a job for Michael Jackson.  Oh yeah–Thriller, baby!  That’s what we needed!

So I blasted it, and Leah and I started grooving and car dancing, as we do.  “I want to love you–P.Y.T.–pretty young thing”.  Now, because I am a very excellent and experienced mom, I had bribed Leah with a milkshake if she behaved in the store, which she did of course.  That girl would never miss out on a milkshake.  So we rolled into McDonald’s, on our way to the drive-through.   “You need some loving–T.L.C.–tender loving care, and I’ll take you there, take you there, take you there.” 

“Mom”, she says, “can you turn that music off when we go through the drive through?”  I looked back at her quizzically.  The music wasn’t even that loud.  “It’s kind of embarrassing…” she clarified.  Huh.  Oh, I get it.  I see what’s happening here.  So, I did what any good mom would do.  I turned that music UP and started singing really loud, of course.

I have seen some signs in my almost 10-year-old of entering the “perpetual parental embarrassment” phase.  This did not surprise me at all.  I am a little surprised that my 7- year-old is getting there already, but no matter.  Because, you guys—this is going to be AWESOME.  I am going to be SO GOOD at this.  I was made for this.

So much of mothering and parenting just takes so much effort.  It’s hard on so many levels, and you are stretched out of your comfort zone on a daily basis. The older my kids get, the more unprepared I feel to handle all the things that come with them growing up.  When they were babies and toddlers, at least I had those “What to Expect” books to refer to.  Now I’m just winging it.  Any outsider can see I obviously have no idea what I am doing, parenting these kids.  But this–this is different.  All I have to do here is be myself.  I just have to keep myself alive.  That is all that is required of me in order to succeed in embarrassing my children.  And do you want to know what I will tell my kids when they tell me I am embarrassing them?

I will say, It’s about damn time”.  

Nate, remember all those times you lost your ever-loving mind in the grocery store and started screaming like a banshee?   Or all the times you dropped a “silent-but-deadly” in church, as we sat helplessly by, eyes watering from the fumes?   Then there was that time you went up to that guy with the beer gut hanging over his pants and asked him,  “how come you don’t get very much exercise?” Or the time you accusingly asked that very pregnant woman if she was married?  Oh, you don’t remember?  Well, I do, and here’s the thing:

It’s PAYBACK time.  

And Leah, my precious delicate flower.  Remember that time you fell into the toilet bowl, butt-first, in that public bathroom?  You were soaked from knees to nipples and I had to fish you out of a dirty public toilet, dry you off with one-ply toilet paper, wrap you in your coat, and then go finish the grocery shopping with a half-naked, contaminated preschooler.  Or how about all the times you created a scene in a parking lot because you didn’t want to get buckled in to your car seat, so you alternated between doing the wet- noodle and the dead-drop, making it physically impossible for me to corral you into the car?  Let us never forget the time you spilled a whole gallon of paint in Home Depot, after you begged daddy to carry the paint and said “I won’t drop it daddy, trust me!”  Guess what:

Turn around is fair play.  

Listen moms and dads.  Being a parent is rough.  When raising a family, there are so many things that seem like they are going to be fun in theory (birthday parties!  field trips!), and then when you are actually doing them, they are not as much fun as you thought.  Sometimes those things you thought would be fun actually make you start fantasizing about sticking an ice-pick in your eye so that you can be released from the “fun” and go have a nice rest in the emergency room instead.  So we have to MAKE OUR OWN FUN!! THIS IS HOW I AM GOING TO HAVE LOTS OF FUN!!  [insert evil laugh]   

And you know me.  I don’t do anything half-way.  When I set my mind to do something, I commit.  I do a really good job, because I take pride in a job well done.

It occurs to me that perhaps my parents also made their own fun at this game of embarrassing their children.  Mom, dad–you have outdone yourselves.  You have exceeded expectations in this task.  Everything I learned about embarrassing my children, I learned from you.  Thanks for that.  Seriously though, you can stop now.  Enough is enough.