The Unsolvable Riddle of the Working Mother

Through the phone he sounds like a baby still, his voice all treble and long vowels that twist up, sing-songy, with excitement.  That voice, disembodied and modified as it filters through my earpiece, reminds me of the two year old version of this, my oldest, son.  I see him in brand new glasses, so tiny in my hand I could not believe they would span his face, and his hair long and shaggy as it was back then.  And he is talking with a soft lisp in the background of my phone conversation with his father, this almost seven year old boy, and as I listen, nodding, I am marveling at how young he sounds.  Still such a small thing, so easily crushed and just as quickly puffed back up with joy again.

He tried out for a part in the first grade play this week.  He worked all week to learn the story of Francis Scott Key, reciting the story of how our national anthem came to be, and his father would say, "Yes, that's good.  You remembered all the parts, but do it one more time and speak slowly."  Then our boy would stand there, so tall and straight, eyes wide beneath the sixth incarnation of eyeglasses since that toddler first learned to wear the things, repeating the story of the famous flag waving in the dawn's early light.  Each word so carefully reigned in, except the name Francis Scott Key, which always came out a-jumble.

In my mind's eye, I saw him getting up in front of the class for his audition, saw his words tumbling out, tangling up in each other in his excitement.  And I laughed under my breath, knowing his eagerness would overtake him as it always did, knowing he would remember every little detail, that  he would move his hands just like his father does and he would be wonderfully animated.  He would get all the rest of it right and yet his words would come tumbling out and bumping into each other no matter how many times he'd practiced it s-l-o-w-l-y.

~ ~ ~

The elevator stops at every floor to let someone on, beeping cheerfully as it opens its doors to welcome new passengers.  By the time we reach the main level, we have all shuffled close enough that our bags and the jackets slung over our arms are brushing the backs of the strangers in front of us.  It's been spitting rain off and on all day, the perfect recipe for a long Friday commute home.  The lumbering elevator is just one more thing standing between me and my boys.  The lumbering elevator and every other working stiff stuck in a car on northbound I-35 between downtown and suburbia.

Hurry up and wait.  We run to our cars to sit on the thin upholstery at 15 miles an hour.  Adjust the air conditioner, fiddle with the radio.  I yearn north and east, ten miles down the road to where my family waits for me.  I talk to Sam on the phone to pass the time, and our oldest is saying in the background,  "Don't tell her, dad!  Let me tell her!" And I know from his excitement that he got the part, that he remembered all the details and rushed through the audition and got the speaking part in the school play.  In the center of my chest, heat gathers: my pride is a warm constriction around my heart, a sweet pain in my chest.  The sedan in front of me taunts me with emotive break lights, moody syncopation that reminds me I am not home yet.

~ ~ ~

The internet tells me Michelle Obama wore a gown by a designer named Tracy Reese when she stood in front of her party's convention and named her most important role as "mom-in-chief." I learn that she kept the couture grounded with J Crew heels, and that those same heels can be mine for an every-woman special price of $245.  But, it seems, the internet hasn't decided what to make of that mom in chief business. 

I drive home thinking of the politics of motherhood, a race no woman wins no matter which side she campaigns for.  My own discount pumps are nearing the end of their life, and I know that even before I've hugged my boys, I'll have slipped them off and kicked them recklessly just out of the walkway in the kitchen.  They've been pushing on the old unhealed wound in the arch of my right foot, but what can I expect from a pair of shoes that cost less than the tax on the first lady's version of discount footwear.

And as soon as I'm free of the shoes and my feet stretch out, flattening into the cool tile of the kitchen floor, my boys will see me and scream Mom! as they run for me with arms open like some happy reunion scene in a movie.  They will bowl me over with hugs, and Sam will wait, just a little begrudgingly, for his own hello kiss while our kids press their dirty t-shirts against me and repeat mom, mom, mom over and over again.

I cross the threshold, step from one role to another, and become mother in the twenty steps from car to kitchen.  All the reassuring protocol of the professional world dissolves, and though I should feel the weight of responsibilities lift from my shoulders, instead I take on the tremulous identity that is both infinitely lighter and heavier all at once.  This is by far the trickier role, and also the more rewarding.  And there is something more, something ingrained about it.  This is who I am.  I must perform certain duties as mother of these children, but ultimately I am so keenly, starkly myself with them that I realize how much more of myself I understand now than I did before I had children.  They were part of me, and it feels as if they still are, though they prance about on the outside like the umbilical cord is not still pulling at my abdomen.

This is coming home.  This is coming home to myself, kicking off the outward face and wrapping my arms around my life.

I imagine the first lady slipping out of her for-the-people heels, too, replacing her designer gown with some elastic waist pants and putting on her mom-in-chief hat.  I wonder which part is the slow elevator ride for her, which part is the Friday traffic.  What keeps her from her children so long she starts to yearn toward them like a magnet being held an inch from the refrigerator door?

I relax into the arms of my boys, breathe in their dirty hair and pat their little backs.  All evening, we do nothing but play, lounge, read stories, and have music around us.  Nothing productive is done and yet we fall into bed, tired and half-smiling still.  In the morning, the boys will climb into our bed and burrow beneath the covers.  I will feign irritation, but secretly I will breathe a contented sigh so deep the knots in my shoulder will unclench and disappear into my pillow.


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