I spent a lot of time today pondering the difference between what my children are thinking and what I am thinking at any given time. I am not sure how to understand this difference – should I feel guilt? Pride? Or simply accept as natural that we are in different worlds so much of our days together in the same small space?
Grace’s continual frustration with her awful parents highlights this eternal difference, but there are many other moments when I see it in operation. I might be thinking it would be somehow fun to do a little laundry, or fantasizing how extremely pleasant it would be to get the small pieces of dried grass off the floor and into a dustpan. (Certainly Bill has never had these strange thoughts either, but we’ll discuss Bill and Launa differences in another post, maybe even several.)
A real part of me imagines that perhaps the girls might find these extremely compelling activities satisfying as well – the great happiness of efficient sweeping, or of using a machine to turn underwear that smells bad into underwear that smells good and you can put back neatly in your drawer. Maybe they would want to do the chores with me! Perhaps, like the good but plain Mama on Little House on the Prairie, I could teach them something useful to themselves and others, and they could look up to me, glowing and grateful. I guess it is all this rural air giving me these fantasies, or perhaps this is a result of my first foray into the life of a stay-at-la maison-mom.
But it is not to be. At the same moment I am having this brilliant idea, the kids are likely up to something else. They are busy. Grace is busy embroidering with royal blue thread on an egg carton. (???) Or she is busy lying on her unmade bed with her dirty clothes all around her, looking up at the ceiling. She is busy watching Xena, Woman Warrior, on a tiny screen on an ipod. She is busy breaking a baguette into tiny, crumby pieces that she will leave on the counter and on the floor while she drags the rest back to her room.
Abigail is busy, too. She is busy tracing the ants as they cut up a leaf and drag it back to parts forever unknown to me. She is busy dancing around her bedroom to Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra” on yet another ipod. (Why does she so adore that song? Why????) She is busy scrubbing her retainer clean with soap, or yet again washing her hands slowly and fastidiously. Although domestic chores are always out of her sphere of interest, there is never any soap spared in the washing of Abigail herself. Or perhaps she is busy getting little scrapes and bruises. We dress them together in new band-aids that require my loving, motherly touch.
Abigail, at age 7, is still enamored of me, and tries to find ways we can do the same thing together at the same time (aside from domestic chores, of course). She looks up at me with intense love, holds my hand gently and quietly, or grabs onto me with all the force of her powerful little muscles. She checks in with me to see how I am feeling, lets me know what I can do for her.
But hardly all the time. We even swim at different times, in different ways. When the girls get in the pool, it is nearly almost high noon, or its sun-damage equivalent. They could not care less, or notice, that their skin is reddening and drying up. I don’t think they even feel it. At the same moment, swimming is the last thing in the world I want to do. I slather on lotion, move cautiously from the house, wrapped in a longsleeve shirt, to the safety of a lounge chair shaded by an umbrella.
The girls dunk themselves and bob up and down the length of the pool in the scorching sun. They have an endless appetite for swim races, and will forever trade their one pair of goggles back and forth while switching among backstroke, breaststroke, and crawl. Only I notice the pattern: whoever has the goggles wins. (I wonder if I should call the US Olympic team with my discovery; presumably their sponsor could spring for a few dozen pair of goggles before Team USA’s next big match. I’m sure that they will be extremely grateful to me when they gather up all those gold medals.)
While they are obsessed with their races, I on the other hand am obsessed with what I will make for dinner. Today none of the three of us will leave the gorgeous open fields and little treed bowers of our property at all. I go for a tiny little march around the perimeter, camera in tow. I am thinking of taking pictures of the weird little snails for my facebook page. (How inexplicable, from the perspective of a kid – to take photos of snails to post on facebook? When there are swim races and Xena and hair to braid and pbskids.com to play?)
After my trip to photograph snails, the rest of the day I spend imagining dinner into being. Yesterday had been my traumatic quest into town for foodstuffs, and I still have plenty to get us through lunch, dinner and another breakfast of yogurt, hot chocolate and muselix. I pour over the recipe books, imagining something that doesn’t quite exist in the books we happen to have – pan fried pork chops with carmelized onions, white beans with fresh tomatoes and herbes de provence, and a green salad with dijon vinagrette. It may not be in these recipe books, but it’s going to be delicious, and it requires a lot of absentminded attention and imagination as I sit near the pool to answer occasional requests and be sure the girls don’t crack their heads open and drown.
The girls continue with their avid racing, alternating with equally avid attempts to do somersaults in the pool. What causes them to engage in endless races when I can already predict the outcome with 100% certainty based only on who wears the goggles? But at the same time, my thoughts must be equally opaque to them. Why think so damn hard about dinner, Mom? It arrives on the table at the same time every night, with the same number of calories, carbs, protein, and fiber. What could be more boring, more predictable, than dinner? Unless it’s spaghetti or delivery pizza, (impossible in these parts) who could possibly care? OK, so it’s French food now rather than the quasi-multicultural mélange we ate at home, but it’s just food.
Still, dinner is, at least in my own mind, a great success. I produce for them some cheese, grapes, crackers and olives to eat in the hour before dinner, and they all tuck in enthusiastically. I am thinking mostly about my pleasure in the bottle of beer I just cracked open, but presumably that sort of thought is years away for either of my little girls.
I know that dinner is a success because the snacks disappear completely, then fewer people than usual take issue with the dishes on the table. Although the white beans cooked soft and mushy with carrots, onions and tomatoes were certainly a stretch (perhaps for Bill as well), both girls agreed after a little cajoling to eat them. We shared our thankfuls, shared the baguette and pork chops, laughed together as we ate on the rooftop terrace, then shared the task of clearing the table and washing up all the dishes. We spent three quarters of an hour or so fully immersed in one another. Although my agenda was still perhaps not theirs, (white beans are not the tortellini they requested) our love of meat brought us all together under the same terracotta roof, and the tippy outdoor table placed us all squarely face to face.
After that we went our separate ways. The girls, having been right on top of their ever present parents all day long, went off to their bedrooms with books – Grace off to flip through “Cool French Phrases (That Your Teacher Never Taught You)” and Abigail to read a novel about a fairy aloud in a stilted, lilting, adorable tone that completely melts my heart.
Bill and I then take our turn at the pool. We walked by the clothesline and pulled off the bone-dry towels. The nice English family next door was having dinner, so we resolved to be extra quiet. At the pool, we stripped down to nothing and dove. (It’s a shallow pool, so I have made diving strictly off limits for kids.) Who knows what the girls were thinking as we stole our nicest moments of the day – floating on our backs while the bats swooped in and out of cedar trees in the dim light. The sky was still ridiculously blue, and the water was, finally, warmer than the air.
Childhood is its own world, and adults can only be strangers there. We may imagine we live with our children, but their feelings and preoccupations are not our own. Today I walked into Grace’s room to tell her for the godmillionth time to brush her knotty, straw-dry hair.
She was doing something inexplicable. On her bed was a paper with a short list of words.
Feelings: (she had written)
I was struck with a desperate sadness. I had no idea she was feeling so awful, and I immediately sat her down to ask her what was wrong. She had spoken with us on a few occasions of her fear about starting at a new French school. For Grace, it was not the idea of French that terrified her, but the idea that she might become a bully magnet when she had to go to public school for the first time. The moments of anxiety about French school came and went, so I assumed, through my own lens, this must be why she made her feelings list. This whole trip was an awful idea. It was far worse than I thought.
Not so. “I’m fine, Mom,” she told me, looking blankly in my direction. I don’t know – I will never be able to know – what those feelings listed on the page had to do with the thoughts in my own daughter’s mind at any given time. At first I thought perhaps I was an awful mom not to have insight into her feelings or to be able to help her think things through. Then, on the next page, I read another list of feelings
…followed immediately by a short poem she had written about being chased and eaten by a vicious tiger. The poem perfectly evoked the list of emotions she had catalogued. Reading her poem turned my maternal guilt over her state of mind into the pride of a writing teacher. She had imagined a series of feelings, then described them in poetry. No longer a sad little girl, she was a brilliant little poet. I was awash in a glow of pride.
Or so it seemed. There will always be a gulf between what she feels and what I can know. Tonight I kissed them both to sleep, reminding them to wait to open the windows until their lights were off. They hate bugs, and had learned their lessons the night before, so seemed quite happy to follow my suggestion. Abigail flopped her head on her cool pillow, tired from a day of backstroke and breaststroke races and following the ants to their source. “I love you, Mom,” she breathed, nesting down into the bed. “See you in the morning.” Only months ago, she could not get through the night without coming into our bed. What happened to seal her off from me, to help her grow into someone who could spend the whole night with the windows open in her own little bed so far away from her mother? What is this moment of division between my child and my self?
Was this resignation to her own bed my success? Was it, worse, my failure, my loss?
Or, more accurately, was it her own loss? Or her success?
Even as I kissed her, Grace murmured the sounds of French phrases and ideas. Who knows where her mind had taken her – to the terrifying first days of school, or perhaps to a fantasy of great social success now that she could happily say in French, whenever it occurred to her, “I dig your new website.” Being plunked into a French school will be lonely, it will be confusing, and I am sure that all of us will have plenty of sad to go around. But at least for this moment, she seemed to have a linguistic plan for conquering it. On her own.
“I love you,” I whispered to my oldest girl, my heart full for her and with her. If I am to be honest with myself and with you, she is the one who causes me the most pain and the most openhearted happiness when that pain is replaced for a time with joy and laughter. “I love you too, Mom,” she whispered back, and returned to a land of her own making and her own experience, of books and thoughts and embroidering on egg cartons all afternoon long. Godspeed, smooth sailing, and sweet dreams.
I feed her, make sure that she is clean and well-rested and suitably clothed. I keep her away from real tigers, give her fresh fruit, plenty of exercise, writing paper, monitored internet access and adequate dietary fiber, and be sure she has done her homework. (At least during the school year.) I revel in the stories she writes and in her one true strong friendship in this world. But I will never be able to protect her from the schoolyard bully, the lonely pain of being misunderstood. Ultimately, after all the goodnight kisses and band-aids on knees, our children must live their own lives, separate from the worlds we build for them. Ultimately they will sleep in their own beds, and eventually we will rest alone in ours. We spend all of our hours in the same house, but we still live apart in the worlds of our selves.