When I read a word I don’t know, I write it down on a receipt or a bookmark, or sometimes I dog-ear the page so I can come back to it. Recording the date next to a word in the dictionary to mark its entry into my repertoire makes me a “word nerd,” but I do it anyway. This is how I know the precise date (1-21-01) that I stumbled upon the word ennui — a “feeling of utter discontent and weariness from lack of interest; boredom, tedium” — and realized that it described everything I was feeling about parenting.
Ennui is the state I enter when my nine-year-old son shares the long list of climate readings from his imaginary planet: Bogahamto.
“See, so it was eighty degrees on August ninth with a low of 20 degrees below, because of the distance from the sun, and it was cloudy with ice pellets, but look here, the next day it was 75 degrees and freezing with clouds . . .”
Ennui is what I feel during my daughter’s play-by-play of endless first grade recess disagreements.
“So then Carlos said, ‘You’re frozen,’ and I’m like, ‘I am not!’ and then Lucy said, ‘If you freeze her, I’m not your friend,’ and then Carlos was like, ‘I didn’t want you to play with me anyway . . . . ‘”
A state of ennui is where I go during walks with my two-year-old.
“Look, Mama, a rock.”
“Yes, a rock.” I nod.
“I tro it?”
“Sure, you can throw it.”
“Look, Mama, ‘nother rock. I tro it?” One step.
“Oh, Mama, ‘nother rock, I tro it?”
I don’t get to tell Jamin that I don’t give a shit about the climate on Bogahamto. I can’t tell Maya that the tenth round of freeze tag follies makes me want to scream. I certainly don’t tell Ahna, “The whole f***ing world is filled with rocks!” I nod, smile, and respond appropriately.
In my early twenties, when I was expecting my first child, I anticipated parenting to be a challenge: sleepless nights, trips to the emergency room, and arguments over vegetables. While those have been struggles, they are rarer than the everyday boredom of being a grown-up with young children. Every day is filled with jokes with no punchlines, repetition, meaningless data, and outbursts of orifice origins.
Jamin: I made a fart noise. Did you hear it?
Maya: No, do it again.
Jamin: Did you hear it?
Maya: Yeah, do it again. That’s funny. Mom, did you hear Jamin?
Mom: I’m right here at the table.
Jamin: I can make it with my cheek, too.
Maya: Do it. Can you do it at the same time?
Jamin: I’ll try.
Maya: Do it again.
When I read an article by a mother describing as “blissful” a simple day spent with her child, just setting up blocks and knocking them down while saying “Wheee!” I think, “Really? Because that would drive me nuts!” Did I miss the Zen Mommy gene? Or are there others out there that have been forced to develop coping strategies? My iPod in the evening helps, especially songs with inappropriate lyrics. Mantras play in my head: “I love having creative kids” and, “A rich imagination is strengthened by repetition.” I try to be playful and ask questions to show I’m interested in their lives: “So, what did Carlos say after Lucy told the recess teacher that he was a turd?”
Still the feeling of ennui persists, which is entirely inappropriate for a mommy and educator to talk about. I can imagine how that conversation would go:
“How are those three beautiful children of yours?”
“Oh, this is fun! Who’s there?”
“Who’s there? Where’s the punch line?”
“There is no punch line. Yeah, that’s right. Multiply that times 14 hours a day, that’s how my three beautiful children are doing.”
I don’t know humorous “a guy walks into a bar” jokes anymore, but I know a wide-mouthed frog joke, one about elephants and burning ducks, and another about a log rolling over in the toilet. I know that pushing “UP” on a speaking computer to make it say “You pee” is an entire afternoon of entertainment. I know I don’t get invited to many parties.
The other day I giggled in the checkout line when an old man farted, and I thought about that transformative moment when women look in the mirror and see their aging face or hear themselves repeating familiar phrases and gasp, “I have become my mother!” For me, the horror is: “I have become my children.”
My daughter recently put up a handwritten sign on her bedroom door that read, “Don’t come in, I’m bord,” and I totally connected with her. It’s not the absence of people that makes my life monotonous, but the constant swarm of activity and dialogue to attend to that is tedious. The very act of mothering leaves me vulnerable to a boredom that I can’t “fix”; if I didn’t ask, didn’t listen, didn’t watch, didn’t care — I wouldn’t be bored. I also wouldn’t be present with my kids.
Recently I was coaching a class of sixth graders and asked them to sustain freewriting for ten minutes. When they shared their work aloud most of them commented on how bored they were with the activity.
“Just wait,” I told them.