Our Pale Glory

My life is changing in so many ways
I don't know who to trust anymore
There's a shadow running through my days
like a beggar going from door to door

--Neil Young "A Man Needs A Maid"

Drawing by Daniel Stein

by Meg Wise-Lawrence Stein

David won't talk. Do you want a pill? He just lies there coughing. Hack hack. Do you want a pill? I'm not going to open this fucking blister pack with its forty-seven layers of childproofing, enough to rip my fingertips off by the time I get to the 1 mg. of kiddie medicine, just so he can cry and spit it back in my face. Then I've got to go searching for it in the dark on the Oriental rug in the kids room, or worry that Annie will find it in the morning and think it's candy.

Oh man. What if he's really sick? It's too much to think about. I run to him when he whimpers in the night because I can't stand the thought of pain coming near any of them. But it pisses me off. I just want to be left alone with my thoughts. How can I enjoy a little music, how can I find a little release, if the kids are going, "Mommmeeee..."

It's because I can't stand the thought of my children suffering. What if they DIE? What can I do about that? "Mommy," my oldest, Emily, used to say, "promise you'll stay alive long enough to die with me."

I just want to keep all three of my children safe inside the palace walls. Forever safe my little ageless buddhas. Instead I live in a big scary city. Am I mad or what? Well, a cyberfriend said to me recently, your kids get to go to the Metropolitan Opera House on a field trip.

I'm a stay-at-home mother. And a feminist! Ee-gads. I was royally flamed by a woman not long ago who challenged me and my husband on how I could claim to be a feminist and a mom, let alone a stay-at-home one. "How can you call yourself a creative person," she wrote to my husband, "while you oppress others?" To me, she wrote, "How can you be such a backsliding phony liberal?"

I live life as an artist first, then a woman, then, all rolled up in one, a mother and a lover and a driver and a cook, and a million other things, including liberal, at least sometimes. I'm a writer and a mom and a spiritual pilgrim. Whatever happens, I can wing it. That's the cosmic challenge and intrinsic beauty of my job, my calling.

I'm the nice Bing Crosby priest in this apartment house for wayward children and old people and the occasional transient. I'm Mother Theresa for the kids after school, I'm in the Peace Corps when I run my errands. I'm a Zen monk cleaning and making simple meals. I'm a meditating monk when it's quiet. I earn those moments. When Annie's napping and the older two are in school, I practice my yoga and drink my tea and take my monk-moment quite seriously. Beneath my old Rosary beads (I was raised Catholic) and the Jewish book of days (my husband was raised Jewish) are my books on world religions, advanced yoga, and "Enterprise Zones" with my Patti Smith concert ticket stub book mark.

This is my life. I get hate mail from people who think I've betrayed them as well as The Cause (feminism) by becoming a...UGH...stay-at- home mother. Gag puke. I'm on a feminst, stay-at-home mother's mailing list. We all try to provide for each other the support and affirmation we don't get from the outside world. We've agreed to stop apologizing for not being Demi Moore, working mom extraordinaire, and to just be ourselves, in all our pale glory. A parent is barely seen. We stand with our back against the wire fence of the playground, waiting to lunge if we're needed, shrinking back again if we're not. Our accolades are wispy and ephemeral, ever so pale, like the bubbles rising past my window from the children in the courtyard below.

All my work
all my work
is right before
my eyes

It begins in the half-dream state. You give birth to a child and to yourself, to your new self, at the same time. The last days were so weird. The nesting instinct you'd heard so much about-- and railed against; does it really come down to the physical like that? You flutter around, big as a house, folding and refolding tiny diapers. How will you care for something so small when you can hardly care for youself?

The years go by
You lose your pride
The little baby's crying now
so I do not go
And all my work
all my work
is right before my eyes.
-- Leonard Cohen "I Tried To Leave You"

It's all right here. Annie brings her book "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" to me while I try to write at the computer. Okay, I say, one sec. Click click goes the keyboard. Waiting and anticipating, she begins 'reading' it to herself, "Hungy caterpillar eat one apple. Still hungy." She glances up to me. "Me hungy," she says. Yes dear. I nod. Annie is always hungry. My husband and I chuckle and say she identifies deeply with the caterpillar-- we didn't know how deeply.

This deeply: she says, "When I grow up, I be a butterfly."

A butterfly! I giggle; sigh. She holds her chubby arms out. "These my wings."

Oh honey. Little honey. How can I protect them forever?

In the school yard, a nanny blows her nose using the inside of her turtleneck shirt. She's talking to another nanny, who politely pretends not to notice. The nannies form one cluster, the mothers another. Neither group is very appealing. They all scare me. What scares me the most is their self-absorption.

A child's day is something we've forgotten. One tired-looking nanny said to me, "It's so boring." Eek, would I want to be raised by a woman who found life with me terribly boring? Then there are women who fight boredom as if they were fighting the four Horseman of the Apocolypse. Once, when my oldest went on a "playdate," the mother had arranged the after-school snack as a lesson in food groups. Every (what?) diced perfectly, and labeled.

To me the quiet moments are the best. That's when we can feel each other's hearts beat as if we were still connected. That's when we can talk and really listen. That's when a child can form a stronger sense of self.

I'm waiting for David to get out of school (then we run to Emily's school two blocks away). I'm standing off from both groups when I see that a toddler has wandered from her mother and is going from the playground toward the city street. I look to the mother, who is unaware, and back to the toddler heading off like a little pilgrim down the sidewalk. A bent old man who is closer to the child notices this also and goes hobbling after her. This is all happening in a split second before words can form in my mouth. I'm aware of my hand on Annie's little head, she's clinging to my legs and circling 'round me like a Maypole. When the mother of the toddler with wanderlust notices she's gone, she turns in a panic, scanning the area. She spots the old man closing in on her daughter. She screams.

"MISTER! GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY CHILD!" With her hands held clenched to her sides, on her face a frightening look of defiance and powerlessness (every parent knows the feeling), the mother takes after the old man, her arms flailing wildly. The child turns and sees her crazed mother and this old man pursuing her. She screams in terror and collapses into a tantrum on the sidewalk.

David runs out and thrusts his lunch box at me and his pictures. He coughs as we go to pick up Emily. I slow my pace. We get Emily and walk home. The cold has made us tired. At home, we flick on the TV and sit together in our big chair.

I take a nap
making the mountain
water pound the rice


Copyright © 1997
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