Martha on my Mind
I love Martha Stewart. This statement probably doesn’t seem particularly profound so let me contextualize. I — a lesbian feminist, mother of two, working full-time, barely making ends meet, and living in a house where you have to pick your way across the floor hunting for bare spots to put your feet between the stacks of laundry, piles of bills, and doll house furniture — I love Martha Stewart. When the latest issue of Living arrives, I shove the Costco Jumbo pack of diapers and vat of cinnamon alphabet cookies over to another corner of the family room so the kids can watch TV, and I run a bath. I sit in the steaming hot water and go through each page. Now if any of Martha’s ideas about “gracious living” were even near achievable for me, I would probably find her annoying, even be enraged at the establishment of false ideals and idle consumerism. But Martha’s world is so far beyond mine, so completely out of the realm of the believable, that I could just as well read a magazine about living on the moon, or deep inside the earth’s crust, or on a desert island — make your own coconut husk holiday greeting cards! Any of these would be as realistic as Martha Stewart’s Living.
Do I fantasize about collecting milk glass creamers from the forties or refinishing old chandeliers into decorative cake stands? No. What I want is Martha’s time. On the inside cover of her magazine Martha prints her calendar for the month with her little “to dos,” the tasks she has to get done. Many of the days are blank. The rest have a single entry. It’s pornographic. “November 11: Store dahlia bulbs in basement for winter. November 16: Hike to Duck Point with Bob and Sally. November 20: Clean Stables.” A whole day. A whole day to clean the stables.
This morning between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. I get up with the baby, cut up bananas for her, and put her in the high chair so I can write three pages in my journal. These pages focus mostly on all the other things I had to get done today — call John about missing play rehearsal last night, clean house for woman coming to rent back bedroom, call social security about supplemental income for in-laws, make arrangements for kindergarten tours. I finish the journal. Peel and cut apples and carrots, steam them in the microwave, and puree them in the blender for baby food. All the time hoping that the day care ladies don’t call Child Protective Services because the baby’s had apples and carrots all week; no time to go to the store. I make the baby’s oatmeal and feed her. Clean baby and high chair, change really dirty diaper, get clothes on baby, wake up four-year-old. Convince her to take off her own pajamas, cut tags off new dress, get her dressed and into the kitchen, where we delicately negotiate breakfast choices. Give her breakfast. Go into bedroom wake up partner; change into work clothes. Come out to check on four-year-old and take checkbook out of baby’s mouth. Pack baby food, two bags of breast milk pumped yesterday, and ice-pack into cooler bag. Wake up partner again and administer three Advil. Brush hair, no time for teeth. Tell the four-year-old to “get your shoes on now” exactly 100 times.
Check my bag for all work documents. Nurse the baby. Bark to four-year-old who emerges from room wanting to change her dress, “DO NOT change your clothes!” And “Get your shoes on now!” Run desperately from room to room looking for my house keys holding world’s heaviest baby on my hip. Feel the twinge in my back but keep going, unwilling to listen to the screaming if I put her down. When four-year-old comes out with her cowboy boots on, don’t even try to talk her out of it. Say, “Switch feet” without looking closely enough because when she does, look again and see that her shoes are now on the wrong feet. Help her switch back. Give up on the keys. Quickly sweep a finger through the baby’s mouth to dig out the dog food she’s happily crunching on. Send partner out door with the baby and start walking with crying four-year-old to preschool.
In one whole day, I could not only clean the stables. I could clean them, convert them into a studio apartment, and have them listed for rental so I could get some additional income and stop working so damn much, running around like a maniac and making my dear child cry because I shout her out of the house every morning.
As we walk up the hill I look at my watch wondering if I’ll get to the train in time to make the 10:30 meeting. That’s right 10:30. It’s not like I’m aiming all that high. I’m a working mom, but not a high-powered, precedent-setting, glass-ceiling-busting career mom. What I am is the primary wage earner in our household. I didn’t choose to go back to work when my babies were three months old. I had to. And the yawning pit I felt in my stomach when I walked away from them the first day back to work has never really gone away; it has quieted, but if I let myself think for even a moment as I walk out the door, I can feel it.
I try to let go of the stress once we are out of the house, make the walk fun, sing songs and do the alphabet. Then Keegan announces she wants to walk along the raised edge of the planter at the corner. A delicate feat of tightrope walking that will easily add ten minutes to the walk, enough time for me to miss my train. “No Keegan we can’t.” “But Mom!” “No Keegan.” “But Mom!” “No, I have to go!” She begins to bawl again and I take her hand and we trudge the rest of the way up the hill.
The meeting at 10:30 isn’t even an important one. I am not going to be contributing anything unique to the process. And I don’t even respect this particular boss. The paradox of making my child who I love beyond words unhappy over something I care so little about is crushing. But I need to be there and on time to show this boss that I am in the office, participating, hoping he won’t notice how I am never on time in the morning. How I leave early to pick up my kids. How I back out of business trips and use every last minute of my sick leave. And here I cringe again. I am a bad employee. I personify all the terrible stereotypes sexist employers use to justify not hiring mothers. I am a bad mother, a bad employee, and I am giving working mothers everywhere a bad name. This for me has been the trap of being a working mother, the constant inadequacy in both roles. My head agonizes over this conflict frequently, but my heart just shrugs. The world is not set up to do both well. I cheat my work to be with my kids. It’s the only choice I can make. I work as little as possible to: 1) ethically justify getting paid, and 2) not get fired. I’m slipping on number one and beginning to fantasize about number two.
Martha has no such conflicts. She has the luxury of time. It’s not what she does with her time. It’s that she has so much of it. Had I spare time I would never spend it creating decorative curtains out of vintage tea towels — but the thought that one could! That is the vicious fantasy that Martha’s selling me. It’s not domestic perfection, that’s not what I yearn for. It’s time. My children’s childhood years are so finite that all time seems to telescope down. From the two short hours I have each weeknight between picking them up and putting them in bed to the 12 or 13 years I have until they won’t want to hang out with me anymore. It has created an incredible sense of urgency in me.
I drop Keegan off at preschool, refuse to read a book, agree to three hugs and three kisses. As I hurry up the street, I see two other preschools moms strolling leisurely up toward the café with their younger babies in strollers. And I hate them. My breath curls up tight in my chest. It shocks me because I have never in my life been given to hate or envy before. Now, I am so jealous I can’t breathe. Smile, I tell myself. You know them. They are good people. Smile. I settle for not trying to burn holes in their backs with my eyes.
Martha, Martha, what have you done to me? The real Martha of course lives in New York and no more cleans her stables than I spend hours crafting dinner party place names out of porcelain thimbles. She is not the ideal of leisure named after her. Her real calendar is no doubt fuller than mine what with all the parties and the stock trading. As Keegan and I walk home that night with Piper in the stroller she tells me all the things she did. We sing more songs and play with our shadows in the streetlights. The angst of the morning has dissipated and we happily roll up to the front door. I reach into my bag and remember I never found the goddamn keys this morning. Keegan suddenly starts grabbing her crotch and frantically doing the pee-pee dance. A quick glance tells me none of the neighbors are home. I wheel Piper through the back gate and into the yard.
I direct Keegan behind the lemon tree to relieve herself, and then I rush around the other side of the house to grab a big trash can. I roll it around to the side of the house right underneath the bathroom window. I removed the lock five years ago when I started painting the bathroom. I plan to put it back on as soon as I finish painting the bathroom. I crawl on top of the trashcan but am still not high enough to reach the window. I wedge my foot between a vent pipe and the side of the house and can step up high enough to reach the windowsill. Four years of hauling kids around has now given me the upper body strength to haul myself half way through the window. My front half is now hanging upside down directly over the cat litter box while my back half dangles 15 feet in the air. It’s all so ridiculous it just makes me laugh. Here I am caught in impossible situation and doing just the best that I can. I plant my left arm firmly on top of the toilet tank and see there, right next to my hand, a basket of brilliant African Violets planted in a hollowed-out pumpkin on the cover Martha Stewart Living. And I think, “I got yer ‘gracious living,’ Martha. I got it right here.”