By Barbara Matousek
As we crossed the bridge in to town this morning the sun from the southwest had already risen and the sky was that crisp, mystical blue that always comes just before the coldest temperatures of our Minnesota winters. To the southeast a jet heading north left a long white trail behind it, and the angle made it look more like a rocket heading to escape the earth’s atmosphere than a commercial airline flight.
January has almost always involved a little post-holiday letdown mixed with cabin fever and a struggle to return to the routines of real life. But it’s also always held the promise of a new year, a clean slate, a big thaw some time in the future.
Much of January so far has been spent in low light in our pajamas. Hibernating.
And I have been nothing short of a grumpy mama bear who just wants her children to stop whining and do as they’re told and lay still and be quiet and give her some peace. Unfortunately once the baby bears know mama will react when they roll around on top of each other or pull at her fur, they make a game of doing it over and over and over again. And if a mama bear growls when her babies misbehave but she only growls and never follows through with the things she has threatened to do, the babies stop listening and think it’s just another fun game.
Parenting constantly challenges me to relax and be flexible and patient and accept that I have to let go of control on some things but be firm with other things. I never knew how much I liked to be in charge until suddenly I wasn’t. The things we learn about ourselves from our children.
Mama Bear needs to do three things if we’re going to survive the rest of the hibernation season: 1) get some mama bear alone time, and 2) follow through with being a little more firm with those baby bears, and 3) soak up that sunshine, even if it’s 10 below outside.
They say parenting is the hardest job you’ll ever love, but to be honest, when it’s this hard, I don’t love it.
By Barbara Matousek
I spent much of this past weekend in the black leather rocker that was my nearly constant companion before I had kids. I used to spend hours in that chair, rocking and reading, losing myself for days in a Toni Morrison novel or the latest issue of Best American Short Stories or maybe 20 minutes with Alice Munro’s latest fiction in the New Yorker. But that chair and I haven’t spent much time together since my second maternity leave, since Eva’s eight short weeks of exclusive mommy bonding time expired and I returned to work and a routine that rarely affords me time to sit down, let alone read. But last week when a friend created a cash mob for our local independent bookstore, I ventured out without my children and bought two Toni Morrison novels (I’m that far behind) and the 2012 Best American Short Stories and Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. And despite the long list of things I needed to get done this weekend in between meltdowns and meals, I rocked and read and lost myself in the stories and the beautiful, compassionate, generous advice of Cheryl Strayed’s online persona Sugar. While I read her advice to married men contemplating affairs and single women contemplating motherhood and scared young people trying to figure out how to get unstuck, my children made forts out of the couch pillows and threw play-doh against the dining room walls and scribbled all over the barstool cushions with permanent black marker. But I sighed and folded back the front cover of the book and kept reading.
“The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it,” Sugar writes to a divorced man trying to understand love.
And in letter after letter, she responds to complex emotions and difficult problems with simplicity and empathy.
Parenting is one of those things that teaches you about yourself over and over again. Being a mom has changed me because I can see not only what I’ve been avoiding learning about myself, but I can see what I want my children to learn. Would I want my children to learn that it’s okay to invest energy in a relationship that is sucking energy from them? No. Would I want my children to learn that life is always easy and life is always fair? No. Would I want my children to learn that people can simply be labeled as good or bad and that there aren’t layers of complexity in between? No.
I want my children to learn that people are basically good at heart and life is sometimes messy and painful but life is often joyful and these two things go together and that is the beauty of life. I want them to learn that when others hurt us or anger us, it’s not always about us. I want them to learn how to feel safe and yet how to take risks. I want my children to learn about loving and forgiving and being compassionate and setting boundaries. I want them to learn to soar. I want them to learn to risk failure. And I want them to learn that no matter what, no matter what, it will all be okay.
Flight attendants on an airplane tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first and then take care of others. And this is something I’m often saying to friends. This weekend as I set out to lose myself in the pages of a book, I instead reconnected with my writer/reader self and the rocking chair that helped me weather painful breakups and job losses and the death of my father. Thank you, Sugar, for helping me put my oxygen mask back on.
By Barbara Matousek
The cold, fall rain comes down fast as we pull forward in the St. Mary’s parking lot, and Sam points to the small white statue on the west side of the building.
“There’s Jesus’s mom,” he says.
“Yep,” I say. “That’s Mary.”
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I don’t fret a whole lot when it comes to parenting. I generally feel comfortable with decisions I make and mostly have an attitude that they will turn out okay no matter what. But some of my closer friends will tell you that there are two things I do worry over: what to teach my children about God, and what is the best schooling solution for our family.
“Jesus is everywhere,” Sam says, and his 4-and-a-half-year-old friend E, who sits in the booster seat beside him, agrees.
I won’t lie. Sam goes to a Catholic preschool not because I believe anything they teach him about Jesus and God but because it’s the most convenient preschool for my work situation. I don’t know what I believe about Jesus and God, but I also know that Sam is learning to be a good and loving person from good and loving people. And the school is just a few blocks from my office.
“Jesus is in your heart. He’s everywhere. Even in your skeleton,” Sam says.
“He’s not in a skeleton,” E says. “Skeletons aren’t real.”
“Yes they are. They’re your bones. Your bones are real.”
“But skeletons are not real.”
“Yes they are,” Sam insists. “Everyone has a skeleton inside them. Your brain tells them what to do. When you want to move your hand, your brain sends a message to your bones and your hand moves. And when you walk your brain sends a message to your foot to walk. Skeletons are real.”
And there you have it. Sam sums up science and religion and Halloween in the St. Mary’s parking lot. This mama has nothing to worry about.
By Barbara Matousek
“I wish our family had two moms,” Sam says, and I am caught by surprise. I am loading the dishes into the dishwasher while Sam puts the head on his new Lego alien minifigure and Eva pulls at my pants leg begging for her bedtime cup of milk.
“Why is that?” I ask. Our family has one parent. One mom. And it’s never going to have two moms.
“Because moms are great, and if there were two moms one could play with me while the other mom puts Eva to bed.”
Since he came home from the hospital I’ve been talking to Sam about how all families are different. We have books that talk about big families and small families, families that adopt, families with two moms or two dads, families with just one parent. We have books that explain IVF and how a child can come in to the world without a dad.
“That would be nice, wouldn’t it?” I say, both pleased and curious as to why he didn’t say he wishes our family had a dad.
We know lots of different kinds of families. Families with adopted kids. Families with foster kids. Families with moms and dads. Families with just one mom. But I don’t know that Sam has ever been exposed to a family with two moms, and I wonder where this came from. Has he already learned the wrong message that moms do all the kid stuff and take care of everything or is he just wishing there were two mommies because he wants two of ME?
I lift Eva on to my hip and drop silverware into the dishwasher before handing her a sippy cup, but these thoughts stay with me as I walk into the nursery and change Eva’s diaper. Eva holds up the Cinderella and Snow White dolls that came with her Little People princess castle from Grandma. Earlier in the day Cinderella drove a dumptruck while Snow White road in the bucket, and Snow White answered the door when the fix-it guy (that actually came with the dumptruck) came to fix the broken balcony on the castle and ended up dancing in front of the princess mirror. And before I put Eva into her crib Snow White and Cinderella will be placed side by side in the little pink plastic bed on the top floor of the castle and Eva will tell me “Shhhhh. They sleeping.”
Eva is just on the verge of learning boy versus girl, and now that he’s in preschool Sam explains to me about girl things and boy things, but I hope that both of my children will always believe that girls can drive dumptrucks and boys can dance and the world is made up of all kinds of families including families with two moms.
For information on Minnesotans United for All Families and the upcoming marriage amendment vote in Minnesota click here.
By Barbara Matousek
The Mazda that I purchased three months ago is dead, stranded at an odd angle next to the stop sign on the county road that turns to The Berry Patch.
I was revving up and passing a Honda, keeping my eye on the clock and thinking we were probably going to be late, when things went wrong. Now we’re definitely going to be late. Across the highway hundreds of small orange pumpkins cover the field, and beyond that the dead stalks of corn that has been harvested but not yet cleared sway in the wind. We are still ten minutes from town.
“What are we going to do, Mommy? Who are you calling?” Sam asks.
He is in the back, his fingers covered with powdered sugar and sticky banana mess. He is buckled into the passenger side and Eva is tucked into her car seat behind me.
“I don’t know, Sam. I’m just trying to find someone to answer their phone,” I say as I try a third neighbor. Nobody answers their phones at 7am.
As we were passing the Honda, Sam cheered the way he always does but then our Mazda revved and sputtered and I grabbed the gear shift. It was in “drive” but we were losing speed. I pulled over to the side of the road and pushed the Info button on the dash. “Remaining mileage” and the clock are on a toggle. Empty.
When my dad died almost a decade ago I laughed at my mom and told her she’d have to start watching her fuel tank. Dad used to rescue her at least once a month. I’ve never run out of gas.
We live in a small subdivision twenty minutes from town, a rural neighborhood filled with families that have bonfire parties and go to Country music concerts, mothers that play bunco together once a week and fathers that go away for fishing weekends together. I was invited to join a bible group a few years ago and I occasionally get a facebook notification for a Pampered Chef party, but mostly we don’t fit in. The only reason I have Mr. Jeff’s phone number is because he changed a flat for me once. He is the neighborhood fireman who takes care of preschoolers during the daytime and mows my lawn in the evenings and somehow fascinates my 4-year-old who thinks that Mr. Jeff is the strongest guy there is.
“Mr. Jeff has real guns,” Sam once told me. “Did you ever see them?” How does he know these things?
Eva starts jabbering loudly and I crawl out and close the door behind me. Cars are whizzing by. Nobody even slows down. When I was in college the timing belt of my red Pontiac convertible went out during a trip to Michigan, and within thirty seconds two different cars pulled over.
Tears are building in my eyes as Mr. Jeff’s phone rings a fourth time and I compose a voicemail in my head. But then he answers and I ask if I woke him and he says he was just getting up anyway. His wife Sarah gets her cell and calls another neighbor’s cell and within fifteen minutes the neighborhood comes to my rescue and the optometrist’s pregnant wife pulls up and hands me two big red plastic gas containers.
When we’re back on the road again we pass a soybean field that has started to turn golden in the chilling fall air, and Sam talks about the Packers and the Badgers and how he wouldn’t want them to play against each other because then he wouldn’t know who to cheer for. My hands smell like gas and my shirt is damp from sweat, and I exhale and let a tear run down my cheek.
This week it would have been my parents’ 47th wedding anniversary.
By Barbara Matousek
“What sports did Grandpa Jim like?” my son asks. We are standing in the kitchen and he is pulling the scissors out from the drawer, cutting the plastic wrap off a frozen raspberry fruit bar.
“He liked all sports,” I say. Sam hands me the wrapper and I place it in the can under the sink. “But I think baseball was his favorite. Baseball and basketball and football.”
We have just snuck inside during Eva’s nap after spending an hour outside in the sticky humidity tossing basketballs into the net from different distances, the point values for each shot marked on the driveway with chalk. Sam was upset when he couldn’t make the shots as easily as he had yesterday, and his voice was getting whinier and higher until finally (thank God!) he made a 5-point shot and declared himself the winner.
Later in the evening we lay in bed next to each other, Sam’s blanket pulled up to his chin while the ceiling fan throws a slight breeze down on us, and Sam asks me if pirates are real.
“They used to be,” I say. “But pirates like you see on TV don’t exist anymore.”
“Is there still treasure?”
“Where did the pirates go? Are they all dead?”
He stops and thinks for a while and we both stare up at the fan.
“Some day when we’re all dead and not here, who will be here?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I tell him. Lately he’s been almost paralyzed with fear of being alone so I tell him that we’ll all be together. “You and Eva and me and TT and Auntie Ann and Zack and Sarah.”
“Will Grandpa Jim be there?” he asks.
“And we’ll all be together. Our whole family. And I’ll get to see Grandpa Jim. I wish I could see Grandpa Jim.”
“Me too, Sammy,” I say. “Me too.”
And as my son rolls over to face the wall I think about the morning before last when Sam finally learned to catch, when he lit up with excitement and screamed “My first catch! I made me first catch!” and he wanted to do it over and over and over again. Or the way he wants to show me how long he can dribble the big plastic ball in the basement having suddenly mastered the rhythmic bouncing after days of practice. As I lay next to my son listening to the ceiling fan, my eyes fill with tears. “Grandpa Jim” died over 8 years ago, and I cannot remember the last time I cried about him, but as I rub Sam’s back and listen to his breathing as he sleeps, I miss my father just as much as I did eight years ago.
By: Barbara Matousek
We are sitting on the wooden deck on the east side of the aquatic center watching our four-year-old boys float on their backs and “do big scoops” and play a game called Mr. Fox What Time Is It, when an older father leads his daughter past us and back towards Sam’s pre-school swim class. Dad stops midstride and holds his foot up and shivers and pulls his belt and throws his head back and coughs like he has a hairball. Then he pauses a few seconds as if to swallow something and then moves on, pushing his wet daughter back to the pool.
“See? That’s what’s out there for me,” I say to Amy and she laughs.
Don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t matter to me if he has no hair or his joints creak when he gets up from the poolside loungers. I’m sure he’s a really nice guy. He is, after all, taking his daughter to preschool swimming lessons every single day, and he is patiently leading her back to the water every time she loses focus and heads towards the giant mushroom in the shallow end or the sandbox on the west end. He’s just not my type. Though I’m not really sure what my type is. It’s been so long since I was even shopping.
A few days ago Amy and I watched as another older man chased his pre-schooler around the pool, the scowl on his face not for anything particular. He just looked like a grumpy old man. Amy speculated that he was Grandpa, and I told her no way. Grandpas don’t put themselves through this kind of humiliation over and over again every day. Chasing a preschooler around a pool is a dad’s job.
“He’s her dad,” I said. “I bet he’s not that much older than me.”
She bet me that he was Grandpa and after the little girl ran up to him and said “hi Dad,” Amy was genuinely surprised.
When Hairball guy has to chase his daughter again and chooses instead to head for the exit, Amy tells me about her 32-year-old friend who is frustrated with “what’s out there.” Amy told her friend to go older, to date the 40-year-olds.
“33,” I say. “If you don’t get them before 33—”
“They’re set in their ways and will never marry,” Amy says. “I know. I left that part out. She doesn’t need to know that.”
Amy is a relatively new mom friend, but I like her. She’s matter of fact and tells it like it is and really funny, and when I tell her I’m thinking about maybe starting to date again, she says “Find yourself a rich 60-year-old who is about to kick the bucket.”
I laugh and remind her that 60 is fewer than 15 years away for me. I tell her I don’t need someone else’s money.
“Mr. Fox! Mr. Fox! What time is it?” the kids all yell from the side of the pool.
I just need someone who is available for adult conversations during the half hour between the last diaper change of the evening and the time my exhausted body collapses on my bed, my queen-sized bed that occasionally accommodates a 4-1/2-year-old boy.
By: Barbara Matousek
I’m not sure what I was thinking. Maybe I wasn’t actually thinking. Mostly now I think “midlife crisis.” Why else would a 45-year-old single mother of two children under five commit to something as time consuming and crazy as a Ragnar relay? For anyone who doesn’t know what these are, they are running relays in which you hop in a van with a bunch of other people and take turns running legs of 3-8 miles for roughly 200 miles. It’s a 2-day undertaking, if not more when you count recovery time. Two days of riding in a cramped van filled with sweaty runners and funky smelling gym bags. Running alone at night along country roads. Running uphill through city streets in the heat of the afternoon sun. Running, God help me, in funny costumes or women’s lingerie or t-shirts that say “wiggle, wiggle, wiggle” near your ass.
After I finished my first half marathon in May, a half marathon that I said I was glad to have behind me because I simply didn’t have time for all the training, I rested a few weeks and then looked for my next running goal, something to keep me going to the gym so I could continue to eat cheeseburgers well in to my 50’s. A woman I work with did Ragnar last year and she was going back for more, so it seemed like a good idea.
At the time.
That was months ago. Before school let out for the summer and tee ball started and I began using lunch hours for pre-school swimming lessons. That was before the heat and humidity arrived making me crave air conditioning and naps on the couch rather than treadmills and bike paths. That was before my 1-year-old started eating everything in sight making daily trips to the grocery store necessary. That was before it dawned on me that my car had 180,000 miles on it and it’s not terribly convenient to bring children in car seats along when you test drive a mini-van. Simply put, that was before I realized how little free time I actually have. Ever.
And so here I am 3 weeks away from getting in a smelly van with a bunch of strangers. (Did I mention that I don’t know anyone on my team?) I’ve been kind of lax in my training so I’m panicking about whether or not I did enough hill training (did I mention that one of my legs is 3 miles uphill without a break?) and whether I’ll be trapped in a van with a bunch of passionate conservatives (please, please no) and whether or not my old body that hates temperatures over 70 will stay upright during my final leg in St. Paul during the peak of the afternoon. (Why am I doing this again?)
The good news is that, thanks to my amazing friend Jamie, my children will be well cared for and enjoying the air-conditioning while their crazy mother dips her toe in the pool of the none-mommy adult world for a few days. And if I make it back in one piece I might not even care that my ass says “wiggle, wiggle, wiggle” on it.
By: Barbara Matousek
“Mom, what does C-H-I-N-A spell?” He asks from the backseat.
This is his latest used-to-be-cute-but-is-now-really-annoying obsession. This morning as I was making pancakes and his baby sister screamed for bananas and milk and uppie-uppie-uppie, Sam read me the titles of all 50 of his Pokemon cards, frequently mixing up the T’s and the F’s and the small L’s with I’s and the B’s and the D’s so that half of what I heard didn’t make sense. (What does K-I-I-I-I-T spell?) Now he holds a tiny white plastic baseball and a little red and white clicking toy that were in the giftbag from a 4-year-old baseball birthday party. Eva screams from the other side of the car.
“Give her a toy, Sammy. Give her something to play with,” I say.
“But what does C-H-I…”
“China,” I say. “PLEASE give Eva a toy.”
Eva’s screams escalate.
“PLEASE GIVE HER A TOY. NOW!”
“But I don’t want to give her any of my baseballs,” he says and Eva adds kicking to the screaming.
“Just give her something.” I turn to look at the cracker-crusted, blueberry-smeared seat in between them. “Give her that plastic Pokemon you got from McDonald’s. It’s right there on the seat.”
“But I don’t want to give her any Pokemon stuff.”
“Sam. Do you want me to take away your Pokemon cards for a week?”
He immediately reaches in to the netting hanging on the back of the passenger seat of the car and hands Eva something plastic.
“Here Eva,” he says “It’s a truck. Take it.” He talks in a high pitched up-and-down baby-talk voice that he uses only for her, and she is quiet. “It’s a truck. Take a fun truck.”
I exhale and put the rear-view mirror back to its right position, and I can actually hear the tires on the road.
“Mom, what’s China?”
“It’s a country. A country way on the other side of the world.”
“Why does this toy say China on it?”
“Because that’s where it was made. Lots of cheap toys are made in China.”
“Do they make toys in America?”
“Then why do we buy toys from the other side of the world?”
“I don’t know, Sammy. Good question.”
By: Barbara Matousek
At Lions Park Eva’s toes push at the leather ends of her pink flower Robeez and she reaches for me. Again. Uppie, uppie, uppie. The sun cuts across the ball field at a sharp angle, and Sam squats to draw pictures in the sand near home plate while the rest of the tee ball players line up and listen to Coach Megan explain how to field a ground ball. I have flashbacks to soccer last year, the way Sam would lay in the grass on one side of the field and play monster with his friend Hamilton while the other 3-year-olds kicked the ball around the other side of the field.
Last year Eva was an infant. She couldn’t walk. Or wander off. Or ask to be picked up. Or throw herself on to the ground and wail while kicking her legs. Eva weighs 27 pounds now, and my 45-year-old back complains about all the lifting and bending and carrying. I hold her for a short while before setting her down and distracting her with a water bottle. Wind whips my hair across my face and I’m glad for the breeze and the shade.
“Mommy does not like hot,” Sammy often says, and he is right. His little sister does not like hot either.
“Uppie, uppie, uppie!” Eva tugs on my pants and the high-pitched cries begin.
I take her water bottle and sit on the grass next to her and begin digging for the strawberry yogurt bites in the diaper bag. A hockey mom friend of mine once told me that the concession stand and the snack bag were her secrets to bringing all the smaller children to hockey practices. Another mom next to us on the grass hands out graham crackers, and Eva and one little girl eye each other’s snacks and do some trading.
The older kids run the bases and then form two lines, and many of the parents on the bleachers laugh when the young coaches pair up the 4-year-olds and expect them to stay focused and play catch. After a few tosses and some time fighting with the wind, Sam runs to the fence and hands me his oversized baseball cap. He doesn’t ask if he can quit or go home. He doesn’t tell me it’s too hot or too sunny or too windy or too itchy. He just runs back out on to the field without a word and continues tossing to his partner while Eva entertains herself with her empty yogurt bites bag and water bottle.
We have progress.