WRITING LIFE: More Than I Dreamed Of, Barely Enough by Sara Petersen

I am learning how to say the words “I’m a writer” without effacing the words with a shoulder shrug or an apologetic smile or a rushed justification of daring to label myself as such. I am trying to get better at this.

I’m a mother of two. Wren is three. Charlie is five. As a caretaker of small souls, time and continuity are blurry. Here I am buckling Wren into her car seat. She’s arching her back and wailing just like she did yesterday. Here I am at the grocery store, picking out two loaves of Ezekiel bread because I’m vaguely aware that it’s less carb-y than regular bread. I’ll be back here in two weeks doing the Exact. Same. Thing. When I get home I’ll fight with Charlie about brushing his teeth before bed, and we’ll both use the same tactics as we did yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. My tactics will continue to be ineffective.

Waves of ennui are triggered by unpacking my politically conscious ACLU grocery bags (a feeble expression of my personality by way of canvas tote), and then just as quickly as I register the bleakness, I feel ashamed for letting the mundane and necessary chore of family nourishment break me down. When Charlie tries to “help” with a carton of eggs, I snap at him and wrench it out of his small, soft hands. Dull rage burns in the pit of my gut when I see that one of the eggs didn’t survive the exchange. I swear as I slam the slippery mess into the trash. My children watch. I feel weak when my husband gets home from work and asks me how the day was because I tell him, “It sucked.”

“Why? What happened?”

“Nothing,” I respond.

I fantasize about human drama (adult humans), about coming home at the end of the day with colorful stories to share with Brett, about huffing with indignation and saying, “Can you fucking believe that happened?” I dream about complicated conflict, a stressful day at the office (any office). I imagine having to untangle a daunting problem, having to stretch my brain and effort and skill. I want everything and anything that motherhood fails to provide. And I hate myself for having assumed motherhood would provide me more than it already has – the shocking love, the small moments of heartbreaking joy, the velvet of my daughter’s cheek, the clear certainty in my son’s eyes when he informs me that when he dies he’ll come back as a humpback whale.

Sometimes at night, confusion and fear make me certain that I am the problem. I must not have the right sized slot for the corresponding puzzle piece of mother to adequately fit. I wanted motherhood to be a simple clicking into one’s rightful place, an act, a role that would make me calm, rooted. And sometimes it does – when Charlie finds a baby snail and immediately positions it next to a larger snail so the baby snail “has a mama,” when Wren lisps, “snuggle me up mama,” when I trace the slender arced bones of their ribcages with my finger. I’m stunned by what it means to love children. But still. I want. Why do I still want? What do I still want?

It’s this maternal malaise that inspires me to write for the first time. I make myself smile as I crack jokes about potty training; I feel something build inside me as I craft a pretty sentence about Thomas the Tank Engine. I write pages and pages about feeling tired. It makes me feel good to work at words, to work at something unrelated to housekeeping and child rearing.

I write about an anxiety-provoking conversation with my son’s preschool teacher with fevered fingers (she wondered aloud about his emotional/social development and I didn’t sleep for weeks). I release myself from my inner monologue by typing it into a Word document, restructuring the clamor and haze of my fears into neat, black lines against a clean blankness. And when I do this, when I get it all down and out, I feel like I’m moving towards something bigger. I feel part of something external (and therefore, important) even though I’m writing against the clock, against the time when Wren will start wailing from her crib mummmmmmy. For these 90 minutes of afternoon nap time, I am not a friend, a wife, a mother. I am my own thing.

But sometimes I examine a free hour and instead of finding words, I find nothing but irritating smudges against white beadboard, a rim of crumbs lining the wall by the kitchen sink, outgrown baby clothes jamming up drawers, and this domestic disorder becomes something impossible to ignore. I think about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper even though the catharsis that arises from the noise of stale Cheerios shooting up the metal hose of my vacuum makes me doubt my propensity for any sort of professional purpose. The pursuit of order and cleanliness is easy, simple, and so devoid of troubling thoughts or feelings. Something heavy lifts from my chest when I admire a freshly scoured sink, my hands wrinkled with Ajax. But the joy is short-lived, bittersweet. The pure whiteness of my enamel farmer’s sink will soon become stained with tomato sauce, the drain will be clogged with decomposing macaroni. I will have to scour this sink again. And again.

I am healthy. I have two healthy, beautiful children. I have a safe home. I have a supportive partner. I have the privilege to buy what I want and need at the grocery store. I have everything – except the grace to be happy, the gratitude to be content. Except for avocados.

I need the correct combination of ripe avocados for tonight’s salad, and un-ripe avocados for guacamole on Thursday, and the pyramid is full of hard, bright green orbs. I become increasingly agitated as I gently roll each avocado away from its clone, searching for the adequately dark, just-soft-enough fruit. It’s not there. I don’t want to make do with cucumbers instead. I don’t want to remind Charlie to thank me after delivering a PB&J. I don’t want to type “have sex because it will be good for your marriage” into my to-do list in my email drafts. I don’t want to ask the checkout girl to use paper because I forgot my bags and I can’t conscientiously choose plastic because I want my children to inherit a decent world. I don’t want to teach Wren that pee goes in the potty, not on the floor. I don’t want to remind my husband to get a flu shot. I don’t want to remind anyone to use gentle hands.

I place three rocky avocados in my cart. I don’t want to be here.

So I keep writing about it. Until months of writing about it prompts a friend to say, in response to my jealousy of her vibrant career, “But Sara. You’re a writer.” I laugh with knee-jerk self-deprecation, but that night, I lullaby myself to sleep with her words, and I believe them. I wake up in the morning and discover anew that nothing lasts. Motherhood has emblazoned this message into my skin, but I keep forgetting. I make avocado toast for breakfast, swirling tangy cream cheese into the soft chunks of lush green. I call it dinosaur toast and my kids and I love it. Mmmm, we all say, grinning like happy conspirators.

I’m a writer.

 

sara petersenSara’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Vol.1, Brooklyn, Catapult, MUTHA, Brain, Child, Entropy, and elsewhere. She is working on a collection of essays about coming to terms with the life she always wanted. You can find her on Twitter @slouisepetersen.
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  • Autumn

    This is my story too! Thank you for writing!