Each year when the month of June draws close, I murmur, prayer-like: “Thank GOD the school year is almost over!” I’ve done this since the first year we adopted our oldest child.
Between the first day of spring and the end-of-the-year Field Days, I’m like a stir-crazy child: willing the school’s doors to close and free us to the golden glory of summer. By then, I’ve had enough of parent-teacher conferences: something I look forward to every year, while I’m still under the influence of First Day of School magic. With June just around the corner, I’ve tired of my role as Master Scheduler: the one who makes sure that every child gets to every event, that my husband attends Special People’s Day and the Father-Child Picnic Lunch and the requisite, end-of-the-year recital, with pink-tutued girls spinning awkwardly to “Mares eat oats and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy . . . . ” Most of all, I’m sick of my van, sick of driving to and from gymnastics, piano lessons, play dates and dentist appointments. My summer plans include sending my children to the occasional day camp, but for the most part, I relish the thought that we’ll be home. Unrushed. Unscheduled. Such a relief.
And then summer vacation begins, and everything falls apart.
Here is a problem: during the school year, I don’t have enough time to get anything done. Here is a bigger problem: during summer vacation, I don’t have any time to get anything done.
As a freelance writer and editor, I have projects due. I also have laundry and dishes to be cleaned and a refrigerator to be emptied and filled; more importantly, I have children who want my attention, every minute of the day. When I give them that attention, I worry about all the other things I’m not doing. When I’m working, I feel guilty for letting the summer with my children slip away. How much longer will they be calling me into the sprinkler with them, wanting to watch SpongeBob SquarePants together, begging me to hold their legs in the air for handstands, fitting so perfectly into my lap?
This is why I wish I was a good Buddhist. As I understand it (sadly, I’m no expert), Buddhists concern themselves with the Zen practice of being present. This would mean that when I am working, I am simply to be working. When I am playing Mr. Mouth with the children, there is nothing else but flipping primary color, plastic flies into the Mister’s gaping yap. I love this possibility. I wish I knew better how to do it.
I used to pray about making “the right choice” in a given situation. Buddhists, I believe, focus on being in the situation at hand, without wasting energy worrying about whether it’s wrong or right. I long to be so grounded. But, like other Westerners, I struggle to become centered, to stay focused, to make holy the present. The experience of parenting intensifies both the need and the struggle. Occasionally, I meet with one of my spiritually inclined friends, who will meditate or pray or sit with me, seeking guidance from God or Spirit or the Universe. At home, on my own, it’s harder to carve out the time. I know I need to claim space for myself, for my spirit, within the framework of my life as mother, and all that goes with that role.
But when the dog is throwing up or yellow jackets are stinging the kids in the backyard, taking five minutes to just sit seems an overindulgent luxury. I think: How much difference could five minutes really make, anyway? And then I sit here, tapped out an exhausted, and admit to myself: Probably more difference than no minutes at all.
Here is my dream as a feminist mother: I will make myself a priority, and I will make my children a priority, and neither one will benefit at the other’s expense. A fulfilled mother is a good mother, and I will be the one to figure out how to have it all, to be it all.
Here is the reality: Children need to be fed, to be held, to be listened to, to be cleaned up after, to be played with, to be kissed, to be redirected and to be wiped — and when they need these things, they don’t want to hear mommy say: “Hang on, honey. Right after I finish this.” I want my partner to share the responsibilities, but even his best efforts fall short, as do mine: raising children is simply more work than most two people can easily handle. Although not every person’s needs can be met the very moment that she or he has them, feminist mothers, especially, feel stress about whoever is left waiting — whether that’s our children, or us.
That stress can be particularly hard to handle when the chaos is at its wildest: at the end of the school year, when we’re fed up with schedules, or as summer wanes, when we feel overwhelmed by everything we haven’t done during the break. At these times, it’s hard to feel like a good mother (and/or writer, or whatever else is important to us), because we lose touch with how it feels to feel connected — with ourselves, with our creative flow, with the Spirit that infuses everything with light and life.
Even one of the greatest mother figures of our time, Mother Teresa , experienced this sense of disconnection, this “Dark Night of the Soul.” According to letters she wrote to her spiritual mentors, she for decades felt a lack of God’s presence, felt disconnected from the Source of her calling, though she did not allow this to interfere with her work. Of course she didn’t. There was work to be done, and she did it. That’s what mothers do: we wipe bottoms, tend the poor. The pain Mother Teresa felt was real, but her sense of disconnectedness did not in any way negate the effect of her life on those she cared for, on those who were moved by her works, on the world.
At the beginning of June, the summer months stretched out like a field, without path or fence or wall. Now, all of a sudden, I’m shopping for school shoes and lunchboxes, scheduling dance classes, and reviewing hot lunch plans. Exhausted by the dearth of childcare over the summer, and overwhelmed by all the tasks suddenly to be done, I remind myself that feeling cranky and disorganized is not the worst problem I could be facing.
I’ve been obsessing about lost opportunities, about what I could have done to better fulfill my role as mom. I’ve made vows to try to be more present, as I’m able. But I’m trying also to remember that feelings are only part of the picture. Teresa of Calcutta didn’t feel warm fuzzies about her work, and I don’t have to, either. Not all the time.
I do my best. I apologize to my children when I’ve been grumpy. I tell them that I love them, I kiss them endlessly, I check in to see how they — and how we — are doing.
“Do you know how much I love you?” I ask.
“Mama!” They roll their eyes. “You tell us EVERY DAY!”
Meanwhile, the first day of school is right around the corner. I have big plans: to take afternoon naps, for the first time since having children; to go to an early matinee; to go out for lunch with friends. And, yes, hopefully, to meditate. Mothers in particular need time alone, time to get grounded — in whatever form that takes. When life gets chaotic, I quickly forget how important the little things are: five minutes of silence here, a hand squeeze there.
A couple of weeks ago, after my other two children were asleep, four-year old Macky, called me to his bed.
“Stay here, Mama,” he said, reaching out for me.
“What is it, honey?” He’s been having nightmares about dragons lately.
“I just want to look at you.”
So I laid down beside him in his little bed, with our heads together on his pillow, eyes meeting for several long minutes. Then, satisfied, he rolled over and went to sleep.
Sometimes, a few minutes can make all the difference.