One kid, then a second, and then a third jumped-tumbled off the high bus steps and gang-tackled me. After hugging them back, I walked behind the boys with my daughter, who chattered about her day.
“I have something I want to ask you about,” I began, my arm resting on her shoulder. “All of you.”
She squinted up at me through the afternoon sunlight. “Why? What?”
I started to explain what was bothering me as we kicked our shoes off by the steps to the laundry room. Standing there, with my fingers wrapped around the door frame, I felt off-balance. One time, years ago, I had shut the door on my son’s little fingers when he used the frame to maintain his balance, and since then, I’d been afraid of sticking my fingers in the space between the door’s edge and the door frame. And yet for some reason, I still did it every day anyway. Once I got my purple and bright yellow running shoes off my feet, I breathed a sigh of relief that my fingers were intact, and slammed the thick white laundry room door behind me.
I removed lunchboxes from backpacks, stacked the three backpacks in the space between the china cabinet and the dining room wall and set snacks in front of the kids. For a few minutes, everyone talked at once about their day, three overlapping voices forming the ever-shifting mosaic of our life as a family.
I leaned against the kitchen counter top, which is where I usually stand when I’m in the kitchen. Since the accident, I almost never sit down at the table. It’s become my new normal and no one thinks anything of it. When my husband isn’t around, sometimes I jump up and sit on top of the counter, right near the spice drawer, which is where I used to sit as a child. This annoys my husband. He thinks it’s going to break the counter, so it’s one of my many guilty pleasures, I guess.
“So, guys, I need to ask you something. I have this race tomorrow, but I’m thinking it’s going to take me away too long from you. That’s making me feel really bad. It seems unfair.”
“Yeah, Mom, you are gone a lot on the weekends. Why do you have to work so much?”
I sighed and looked at Maddie. “I’m writing a novel, hun. And it’s important.” I took a deep breath. Was I really gone that much? “Anyway, I would be gone, like, the entire day, from before breakfast to dinner. And so I wanted to let you decide. And whatever you decide is fine with me. I’ll honor it. If you want me home, I’ll not go to the race.”
Jim’s eyes brightened. He didn’t need to speak. I had his answer.
Then Maddie did one of her smile-shrug-hair flips, with a dozen other facial expressions thrown in for emphasis. She’s able to convey more without speaking than any other little girl I’ve met. With her voice rising to a higher pitch as she spoke, she spoke. “I want for you to do what makes you happy, Mom.”
I sighed. “No, I’m asking you what makes you happy.”
She twirled her hair. “Well, it will make you happy to run the race, won’t it? You’ve trained for it. You’d be disappointed if you didn’t run it, wouldn’t you?”
I felt like Hell. She cared about me—that was obvious. She wanted me to be happy—that was also obvious. But did she just not want me around? I tried to pull it together. “I don’t want you to miss me while I’m doing something that will make only me happy. What you want is very important to me.”
She shrugged. Her faces twisted in concentration. “You are gone a lot on the weekends. But we’re okay with Dad.”
“So you want me to be gone then?” It was a stupid thing to say, but before I could right the ship, Ben, with a bored look on his face, swung around in his chair and exclaimed, “I want you to go run it. We’ll hang out with Dad.”
That stung. I tried to inspect him, to understand his words, to find the hidden resentment, but I think he was just speaking without filter, saying what he really was thinking, which he usually does anyway. Tears were rising, but I pushed that back down.
“Am I really gone that much?”
Maddie wince-smiled, and I tried to read everything she was thinking, just as she was trying to read me.
“Okay. Maddie. Please. What do you want me to do? I want to be here and I want you to be happy. That’s job one. Be a good mom. Take care of y’all. That’s my job. What you need to concentrate on is not what makes me happy. I want to know what makes you happy, okay?”
She nodded. I could almost see the gears moving in her head.
“So, do you want me to stay home tomorrow? You have the deciding vote. And it’s perfectly okay.”
She smile-shrugged again, and twirled her hair. “It would be nice to have you around. But what about all of your training?”
I breathed. Finally. “The training is fine. There will be other races.”
I crossed the room and opened the fridge door. As I pivoted, slamming the door shut behind me, I thought real fast. This was absurd. I was being absurd. This wasn’t really their decision. It was my decision, all the way. Even if it hurt me that Ben didn’t seem to want me home, I wasn’t going to run from my responsibility. Even if staying home meant admitting I’d been gone too much, I wasn’t going to run from this. Even if it meant facing my guilt, I could do that. I could even face my guilt for being away too much and being too busy and too absorbed in my work without turning it into a shame-making session with my past, present and future ghosts haunting me.
Because, you see, I thought to myself, I can control how the future works out with me and my children by slamming the door shut on this race, and this disengaged parenting, right here, right now. They won’t remember the Saturdays I disappeared, or at least won’t be haunted by them, if I change–if I manage to be here going-forward, most Saturdays and Sundays. I’m in charge of how our family turns out, and all I got to do is be here, and when here, actually be present. I can do all of that without sacrificing my work, and my happiness.
After guzzling half a liter of ice-cold water, I rubbed my mouth on my sleeve and then nuzzled my daughter’s head. “I’m sorry I’ve been gone so much. I’ll try harder.”
It took a few more passes for us to reassure one another that all was well, and then I changed the subject back to the contents of their day. And as they unpacked their day like a woman unloads the contents of her purse, I tried to sort through my feelings. Feeling guilty paralyzed me, and so I had to try to set that aside and think things through. Had I been gone too much? Maybe; maybe not. Children can be self-absorbed. So can I. I never really grew up. In some ways, I’m still a life coming into being, rather than a finished product. And the thing is, I was profoundly unhappy when I was just a stay at home mom. No offense to SAHMs (Hell, moms that don’t work get their own acronym just like some neighborhoods garner their own zip codes, so they must be doing something with all of their time, right?), but I lost my sense of self when I stopped working.
I love being a mom. But I didn’t love being just a mom. I’m not much good at most things domestic, and I never felt comfortable with the other SAHMs. I felt like the ugly swan around them, and deep down, I knew I didn’t belong. As the days revolved and became years, I felt constrained and trapped and overwhelmed with the unchanging routine of it all. I wasn’t very good at running a household and I never wanted to be.
Which is not to say I didn’t love being home with my children. I did. And they knew I loved them. Maybe that’s why they didn’t mind when I disappeared for hours on my long runs—because when I got home, I brought my grinning self to the threshold and bestowed hugs and laughs and well-timed winks. Running made happy, and being happy made me a better mom. Within limits, running made me a better mom.
I guess it’s all about balance. I’d never quite found it. Every day I reached out and tried to hold onto something stable to find it, because I was always moving so damn fast. But as a mom, I had to be my own doorframe. I had to provide the ballast to keep the ship afloat, and to do that, I had to stand still, if only for a few moments at a time, or else I was going to run my family aground. And ships, like families, get pretty messed up when that happens.