I watched Milo exit the school bus, taking one great leap that spanned all three of the giant black steps, and tumbling into the brown grass of the front yard. He hit the ground running, his unzipped backpack in one hand, and his winter jacket in the other, flying out behind him like a cape . A sheet of folded white paper floated out of the backpack as he ran, and danced down to the frozen grass. He knelt to grab it, without missing a beat, and clutched it in the hand that held his coat, waving it at me excitedly as I opened the front door to meet him. “I wrote a fable!” he announced, breathless and flushed from the cold, kicking off his green sneakers into opposite corners of the entryway. “Also, I’m the best poet in third grade. Also, you need to sign my field trip thing.” His jacket and backpack dropped to the floor, forgotten, but he carried his fable to the kitchen counter, where he smoothed it out and proudly handed it to me.
“We could write fairy tales or tall tales or fables, but I did a fable because I thought there should be a moral. I didn’t do a tall tale, because I’m trying to only tell the truth, at least until Santa comes. But the moral in my fable is to not take things that don’t belong to you. At first, my moral was, ‘Don’t play with toys that are for kids ages 8 and up if you’re only 4,’ but Ms. Robinson helped me make it shorter. The story is the same. Do we have any granola bars?”
As usual, the flurry of chaos that accompanied Milo’s arrival woke Felix from his nap, and he puttered out of his darkened bedroom, squinting sleepily at us. “I want a granola bar, too!” he declared, yawning. He climbed up into his booster seat at the dining room table, and the December afternoon sun coming through the sliding glass doors lit up his unruly hair like a halo.
This transition from being alone in a quiet house to suddenly mothering still feels a bit like stripping gears to me. Even eight years into this parenting gig, I haven’t quite gotten the hang of shifting smoothly from me to them. But I’m noticing recently that more and more, these afternoons and evenings alone with the two of them feel less like the bumpy, careening ride I’ve come to expect, and more like settling into a long, comfortable straightaway. I am genuinely glad to be home with them. Lord knows this hasn’t always been the case.
False witness is so easy to bear, and although I haven’t exactly been secretive about my lack of grace in motherhood, I am still often ashamed of the way that parenting can fill me and drain me in equal measure. The presumed narrative, of course, is that mother-love is a pre-ordained superpower; an innate shield against the dark moments of selfishness. But I haven’t found this to ring true. My survival tactics have mostly been staccato, shallow, and short-term. Thaw the chicken. Write the poem. Grade the papers. Do not forget preschool pickup. Drop off a check for taekwondo. Drink. Fix the poem. Drive to the birthday party, and do pelvic floor exercises at each red light. Order a pizza. Do housework in spurts. Write in sprints. Make more bubble-gum-flavored toothpaste appear from the tube that the child has insisted is empty. Research vasectomies.
A woman’s body, after giving birth, is expected to return to its former contours as quickly as possible. But this isn’t so for our minds. Seemingly, our thoughts are supposed to go the way of our picture-perfect nurseries: pastel and subdued. The autonomy of my mind dissipated when I became a mother; I permanently lost access to solitude. What were once the private actions of my brain—daydreams, narcissism, perversions, creativity, scholarship, miscellany—are now swamped by the intrusion of parenting.
But these days, there is a bit more…negative space… around the three of us. It’s colder, but also somehow easier to breathe. I cook dinner, Milo and Felix orbiting around me, and I turn the dance music louder, imagining that I can bottle their laughter as we bounce around the kitchen. Somehow, they don’t seem to know that we’re dancing on a sinking ship every night before bath time. I have always had a sharp tendency and a high threshold for self-delusion, and I worry that maybe they’ve inherited this. But Milo, without asking anymore, only sets the table for three.
In Rebecca Solnit’s latest book, “Call Them by Their True Names,” she writes about the power of naming things. She explains, “When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis. Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it…Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one. And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.”
Naming something is often the first step in the process of liberation. In the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, it is the Queen calling out Rumpelstiltskin’s true name that makes him fly into a self-destructive rage, and ultimately frees the heroine from his coercions and shakedowns. We often think about fairy tales as being about magic and enchantment, but in reality, disenchantment is more often the goal. The nature of being under a spell is that you lose your autonomy. The “happily ever after” to which fairy tales endeavor is often the result of breakingthe spell: a spell that turned someone into something other than themselves (The Frog Prince), robbed them of their voice (The Little Mermaid) made them doubt their own minds (The Emperor’s New Clothes), or left them in a deep, death-like slumber (Rip Van Winkle, Snow White). The resolution of a fairy tale is when the myth of the magic is upended, the illusion dissipates, and the character returns to her true form.
Maybe, as someone who probably wasn’t the best poet in third grade, I should follow Milo’s lead and start workshopping some fairy tales and fables. There is no discernible moral to our story right now. Except, maybe, to not hide from our problems. But rather, to show up, humanely and in good faith. To accept our circumstances as medicine: bitter, measured, but also hopefully…life-prolonging, and maybe even restorative. To recognize the tendons binding us together; the blood between us. This broken body of our family, as we name and diagnose it. Listing off the tasks; listing off the grievances. The listing is a form of paying attention, which is a form of love. And the list, indomitable, keeps growing.