Earlier today I stood at the kitchen sink, washing dishes and basking in the fact that I had finally learned how to be a stay-at-home parent.
How could I be so sure?
Well, for starters, Lucy had minutes ago polished off a healthy lunch, including roasted Brussels sprouts—a food I’d been trying to get her to eat for over a month. As I washed dishes she tottered behind me, happily clinking together two Tupperware containers filled with leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch, a real coup. Lunches, dinners, snacks—none of them are easy in our house. Lucy has unfortunately inherited two family histories worth of allergies, including dairy, wheat, chicken, eggs and a few others we’re still sorting through.
Adding to the stress surrounding our mealtimes is that we don’t have a dishwasher. This might not be so bad if we didn’t cook everything from scratch, and if our kitchen wasn’t the size of a walk-in closet. Most of our counter space is taken up by a large bath towel and homemade drying rack concocted out of a plastic shelf. Not the best, but one look at the set sold at my local hardware store only made me laugh: you think one of our cast iron pots would fit on that?
So, just as I’m about to swipe into the sink three wineglasses left over from last night’s dinner party—carefully, mind you—I lose my balance, knocking over a plate from the top of the plastic shelf. The plate lumbers down in cinematic form, sliding to the countertop like a slow-rolling boulder and setting off a chain of events ending with the three wineglasses perched at the edge of the counter, ready to jump. I lunge forward, managing somehow, to catch all three with my wet hands. The situation is precarious. If I let go of one, the other two will fall to the floor. Worse, there’s an apple in the way (who put that there, anyway, I think, before remembering it was me) and I’m unable to simply push them back to their original, safe positions. In the midst of contemplating my next move, I have one of those epiphanies where I see myself from up high.
“Damn,” I think. “She is really keeping it together.”
For that’s how I felt—today. I’d wiped down the stove, balanced the checkbook, made a hot lunch, washed a load of dirty diapers and in between the chores, sold a photograph. But as my 1-year-old stood behind me, waiting to see who would win, Mama or the wineglasses, a more familiar, troubling thought crept in: No, girl. You do not have it together.
It really is an illusion, isn’t? Because on most days, laundering and diapering and vacuuming and dusting and feeding and cooking and bathing and bill-paying are all tasks I throw up in the air at the same time, never finishing one before moving onto the next, a short span-of-attention habit that, I’m beginning to think, is indicative of my failure to grasp this motherhood thing. I mean, do other mothers leave their delicates in the washing machine three days in a row? Well, maybe. But do they remove half the load for drying and leave the other half wet and wrung around the agitator for no good reason other than they despise that one chore?
And do they, as I sometimes do, wash about one-third of the dirty dishes, leaving the rest in a heap on the counter for the husband to finish up—even though he does all the cooking and grocery shopping?
I’ve always told myself my inability to accomplish housework is because I’ve got more important things to do—write, take pictures, spend time with my daughter. I mean, what’s more important: a neatly folded stack of shirts or a walk down the block with my toddler?
This may be partially true. I do enjoy spending time with my daughter, of course, and would much rather read a book with her or color a picture than sink my hands into hot scalding dishwater. Who wouldn’t? But I also take pride in the fact that Lucy and I do manage to work through several chores in a day, in spite of my inability to carry through with most of them. I love the fact that Lucy sees her mother accomplish “real” work during the day, versus merely existing as her playmate. And Lucy loves to help. Only moments before parading around the kitchen with the hamburger filled Tupperware, she had put away most of the farm’s bounty brought in last night—radishes and potatoes in the fridge, the now-empty brussels sprout stalk into the compost bucket. She especially liked the knotty stalk and, giggling, hugged it to her chest as if it were a stuffed animal. I let her even though it left a smear of Portland dirt all down the front of her shirt, effectively creating more laundry.
Would I ever learn?
Which brings me back to the moment that found me wrangling with three wineglasses.
I actually forgot that Lucy was standing behind me, so badly did I want to master this moment and all that it represented. It was as if the very measure of motherhood rested on the safe return of crystal to our cabinets. And so when one of the glasses finally dropped, and broken glass was all over the floor and I was near tears and Lucy was holding up the biggest jagged chunk saying, “Uh, uh?” I actually stopped, laughed out loud, and to my own surprise, let Lucy hold onto that very dangerous piece of glass for a smidge longer than I should have. But it was obvious she wasn’t hurt, and barring any sudden movements, probably wouldn’t be. You’ll be happy to know that after a few seconds, I did move in and take it from her. We were both laughing by then—at how quickly things get broken, how little it takes to set them right again. At how Mama will more than likely never get it together, and how that’s OK—it’s better to be a mother who never finishes her chores than a mother who is so caught up in holding onto an illusion that she never breaks a glass.
Originally published in our print issue, Home.