Note from Cassie Premo Steele:
In the last “Birthing the Mother Writer” column, I asked readers to submit stories that revealed an unspoken aspect of motherhood. Ironically, both of the stories that were finalists for publication — “The Play of First Days” by Ellen Kline McLeod and “Tug of War” by Emma Darragh — addressed a similar situation: the frustration with strangers constantly telling mothers to “enjoy this time because it passes so quickly.”
I was in a quandary. I liked both stories and I couldn’t decide which to choose. To complicate matters, I knew one of the writers, and so I feared that I might lack objectivity. So I formed an impromptu editorial committee — composed of friends who are editors, writers, and writing teachers — and asked for their advice.
At first, the feedback was unanimous. All respondents preferred the story entitled, “The Play of First Days.” Here are some of their comments:
They both describe the soul-killing drudgery of early motherhood really well. But I like “The Play of First Days” much better.
I see the similarities in tone and subject matter and approach. I definitely think “The Play of First Days” has a more coherent structure — and at the same time is more fluid.
“The Play of First Days” seemed to have a bit more nuanced perspective.
But then, more responses came in. And these readers preferred the other story:
Yes, they are both about the same subject, but I ended up liking the story “Tug of War,” best.
The first story, “Tug of War,” had humor, and hope, and a bit more insight.
I loved the interior dialogue with the self in “Tug of War.” The way the writer integrated the action in the narrative with self-reflection was really clever.
So, I was stuck again. I felt a bit like a woman with a multiple pregnancy being asked to choose one. And so I decided to publish both and ask readers what they think. It might be interesting to see how readers judge the quality of two very similar pieces. Do they go with the one they relate more closely with? Or the one with the happier ending?
Here are the two stories. I’ve included some questions at the end to spark some discussion. I look forward to reading your opinions in the Comments section!
Tug of War by Emma Darragh
There was no time for a cup of tea this morning. And after last night, Sophie could have used one. Instead she sucked a breakfast-drink through a straw while buttering the kids’ toast.
They had to leave by 9:30 to make it to the library for story-time. Sophie pulled clothes from the pile of unfolded laundry and threw them at Marcus. “Get dressed or we’ll be late and the library lady will be mean to us again.”
At the bus-stop Marcus counted cars and Joyce gummed an arrowroot biscuit. Sophie alternated between watching for the bus and letting her eyes fog over while she planned her morning in town: library, snack, feed Joyce, post office. Then hopefully home for lunch. Joyce would go down for a nap and after a morning out-and-about, Sophie could justify sitting Marcus in front of the TV for an hour. Then what? A cup of tea and a paperback, waste some time on Facebook, a nap, or get a head-start on dinner?
The bus arrived. Sophie tilted the pram onto its back wheels and nudged the swiveling front wheel onto the bus, but the weight of the library books stuffed in the pram’s basket almost caused her to tip the pram onto its side. She managed to correct and get the pram upright — just in time. Joyce was safe and laughing; Marcus had gone ahead to take his seat. Sophie put the brake on, picked up the library books that had fallen in the commotion and finally, red-faced from embarrassment and exertion, she boarded the bus.
A few stops before the library a white-haired couple in matching tracksuits breezed on and sat behind Sophie. Marcus turned around to tell them his name, age and favorite Disney movie. The woman patted Sophie on the shoulder.
“Your children are beautiful, love.”
“My baby is forty-five this year. It goes so fast. Enjoy them.”
Sophie had had this conversation many, many times before. And everyone who threw this tired old platitude at her neglected to tell her exactly how to enjoy her children. How exactly? Prepared Jamie Oliver-style — roasted in the oven atop a vegetable trivet? Maybe she’d ask the librarian if “Enjoying Your Children For Dummies” was tucked away somewhere in the stacks.
Because today, riding on the bus, her pram heavy with library books and her once-pretty face haggard with fatigue, Sophie did not know how to enjoy her children. When was she supposed to enjoy them? En route to swimming lessons Marcus would make up silly rhymes and Sophie would laugh and play along. Yesterday they’d baked brownies together and Joyce had licked the wooden spoon. But Sophie wasn’t the smiling, pseudo-Stepford Wife she’d always imagined being. It wasn’t all picture books and play-dates. She didn’t mind tripping on toy trucks and finding crayons in the couch cushions, but her to-do list was never-ending; and even though it was fun to imitate the Fat Controller, it made her crazy to push Thomas along his track for more than five minutes. It seemed there was always a child strapped to her, or attached to her hand or her breast, or trying to peer between her legs into the toilet bowl. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept through the night; and last night she’d barely slept at all.
Sophie didn’t ask the woman to elaborate on enjoying-the-children; instead she chose to disembark without incident.
At the library Sophie sat on the sidelines with the other mothers. How many of these smiling women were faking it? Who really enjoyed story-time and who was thinking about an old high school boyfriend or wondering what to buy for her brother’s birthday?
Story-time ended, the children dispersed. She sat Joyce down with a bead-frame and gave Marcus five minutes to pick out some books.
She watched him browse the shelves in earnest, and remembered him as a newborn. When she’d looked down into his sleepy, milk-drunk face her heart had seemed to swell with a fierce new love. She’d hummed that Aerosmith power-ballad from the ’90s and felt the tears well up. She didn’t want to miss a thing, even as he slept. She was beguiled by his peaceful face, by the miracle of his tiny chest rising and falling with his sweet, little breaths. That woman on the bus was right — it did pass too quickly. The hundreds of photos she’d taken and the mementos she’d kept were like sandbags against a tsunami of days that kept rolling into each other. Sophie wondered how it could be that the weeks and months passed so quickly while the days dragged on and on until she was nodding off while reading bedtime stories at seven o’clock.
And now Marcus was trying to snatch a book from another boy and had incited a tug of war. “Marcus!” He ignored her and with a final yank on the book, landed hard on his bottom. Sophie was about to go to him but stopped. Marcus was laughing, and so was the other boy. She’d expected tears, maybe a tantrum, and instead her serious little boy was giggling. He certainly hadn’t learned that from Sophie.
Finally home, Sophie lugged everything inside and transferred a sleeping Joyce from pram to cot. She saw the mess she’d left behind her this morning; it would need to be cleaned up before lunch. It seemed that it was a perpetual tug of war between cleaning the house and living in it. The thought reminded her of Marcus at the library.
Bugger it, she thought.
So, ignoring the crusts that littered the kitchen table and the Vegemite-smeared plates from breakfast, Sophie headed for the kettle, the tea bags, the milk, and the sugar. Maybe just once she could give the kids brownies for lunch and order a pizza for dinner.
If Marcus could land flat on his butt and laugh about it, then once in a while, maybe Sophie could too.
Emma Darragh lives in Wollongong, NSW, Australia. She is a former acting student and child care worker who now loves being at home full-time with her 4-year-old daughter and 19-month-old son. As a mother she is constantly acting and caring, and now she just wishes she had more time to write.
The Play of First Days by Ellen Kline McLeod
Monica eased into parenting happily. One sweet baby girl intoxicated her with motherhood so much that as the first daughter turned one, Monica wanted a second baby. Her son was born just twelve months later. Many things were unexpected in this turn of her life, but the most surprising to her was that visits to the grocery store make her cry in her new van all the way home.
Monica feels she has purchased a non-refundable, mandatory ticket to a play she must attend over and over with each trip to the grocery store. It presents a script she dreads every time she pushes a cart across the threshold of auto-opening doors glancing at her image in the security camera television. She sees a baseball cap hiding her dirty hair, jeans resurrected from the bathroom floor that barely button at the waist and her two-year-old daughter seated facing her. With her infant son ergonomically strapped to her chest she strides forth seeking bread and wine. Beautiful, white-haired, well-intended women pushing carts destined for the ten items or less express register wield word weapons.
“What sweet children.”
“They grow up so fast and then they go away.”
“You’ll miss these days.”
Monica can scarcely make it past the pharmacy into the perusal of bakery goods before she hears if for the first time. “You’ll miss these days.” And the scene repeats itself by the bananas, among the boxes of crackers, and in the frozen cases flanked by waffles and family-size lasagna. By this time her toddler has typically finished the free cookie given to her in the deli and is begging for the marshmallows she saw on the last aisle. “You’ll miss these days.”
Monica always smiles in response. It seems the play is written without any spoken lines for her. As her lip corners rise she attempts sanguine eyes and slinks away thinking, “Namaste.” Her throat gags bile-tasting guilt as each time she is acutely horror-stricken at her inability to believe she will miss the day. The overnight screaming every two hours by the new baby followed by the midnight crying of the awakened two-year-old and the relentless ensuing fatigue? Perhaps it is the week-old banana she forgot in her purse which not only reeks but reminds her that she hasn’t left the house in seven days? Or the bribing with bags of aquatic-shaped crackers, the liquid yellow poop leaking down fat little legs, the boy baby who wants endlessly to nurse and accompanying boobs that wax and wane hourly?
Monica is convinced she must be doing something wrong not to be enjoying these days with her small children. Certainly all of these women cannot be wrong. It must be her failure. She wants to wail at their feet, “How? How did you do it? If you miss these days in your life they must have been wonderful. What am I doing wrong that I am so miserable?”
Monica knows she will miss her children’s baby beauty — so soft, sweet-smelling and warm. And the rare times on the couch reading books to a still toddler while a nursing baby sucks contentedly. But won’t her children still be beautiful in the future, too? Even as adults? Why should she begin to mourn their moving out when she can barely get them to stay in a chair at the table with her for fifteen minutes?
The idea new mothers must cherish misery is another maternal myth Monica is discovering, a plastic sack put over the head of a deeply miserable woman to make her feel inadequate or bad for not loving every minute one of the most difficult times of her life. Monica longs to write some additional lines and scene directions to respect the wisdom of the ladies but offer relief for herself. She is certain the matriarchs have wisdom to disperse and that they are well meaning. But she implores them in her silent mind, “With your lines, please old mothers, have mercy. Rewrite the shopping script. Say, ‘You’ll live through these days — they are tough ones. Cherish them not because they feel good but because they are good. You won’t miss all of them but probably won’t remember them fully either. This time is a treasure gem created beneath layers of you formed under immense pressure. Each increase in force hurts now and you will be glad much of it has passed. But, you will also be grateful that you got to have these first years as a mother despite the trials. You will know your own stamina and strength and capacity for love in ways you never imagined.’ ”
Monica’s line remains silent because she is not sure she has the right to speak her thoughts or maybe that she is the only one who feels this way. But she vows her first days as a new mother will not serve later as crippling comfort to another new mother passing, pushing her cart, cradling a crying newborn and bribing a toddler so the mother herself can eat. Monica looks down at her daughter clutching the bag of fluffy white treats, inhales the milky-soap scent of her son’s head and hopes she will not lament the passing of these blurry days. Instead she will try to survive them and live them so fully they will achieve their purpose right now.
Ellen Kline McLeod has worked at various ad agencies and taught middle school, but has now settled into the work of marriage and motherhood. A mother of three living in South Carolina, she is discovering a deep passion for writing poetry and short stories and has poems forthcoming at Vox Poetica and Referential Magazine. She also writes a weekly blog at Musing Monday Morning.
Questions for Comments:
1. Why do you think we ended up with two stories about this same subject? Was this something you have also experienced as a mother?
2. Do you find yourself drawn to one character more than the other? Do you think it’s because she is more like you — or perhaps more unlike you?
3. What does reading these stories teach you about your own mothering — and writing?
4. How might the perspective of these characters change over the course of time?