Recently I got dressed for a professional event for the first time in over six years. I thought about the tone of the occasion—a publisher’s presentation of its spring lineup of children’s books—and the image I wished to convey. Parental, but current and competent. Bookish, but not frumpy. I put on a bra with underwire, selected accent jewelry, and tucked two of my favorite black Uni-ball micro-point pens and a notepad into my sleek, but not flashy, handbag.
My husband dropped our oldest at school, a neighbor agreed to take the four-year-old in exchange for me watching hers later that afternoon, and I asked a babysitter to put our infant down for nap for the first time.
I double-checked the event’s start time, worried about making a stupid scheduling mistake as I had the previous weekend. We’d driven into a Sausalito parking lot for a meticulously planned birthday surprise for my husband—a $30 paddleboard yoga class—and sat snacking in the rental car killing time until it began. We emerged only to find that the group had left, the class having started when we first arrived.
Luckily, the publisher’s invite still said 10:00. I opened the front door and stepped out into the morning sunlight, thrilling with anticipation, almost giddy over the novelty of it all. Anxiety nipped at my heels: What if the baby won’t sleep? What if she wakes up, looks around, and her little face quivers and falls, the sitter unable to quiet her cries of abandonment? I quickly closed and locked the door, determined to leave my disquiet at home.
Ten minutes later, I stepped onto MUNI—San Francisco’s subway-like conveyance running from the Castro to the Financial District—in a crowd of men wearing crisp collared shirts and women in dark skirts tailored like mine.
“Yup, all of us working people headed off to work,” I thought, experiencing an odd degree of camaraderie given that no one made eye contact, each of them sporting either earbuds or an electronics-laden hand.
I disembarked at my intended stop, close to the intersection of Second and Market, marveling at the ease of such a procedure without three children in tow. A quick cross-check of my calendar and maps apps revealed that the publisher’s office was located at the other end of Second Street, twenty minutes away from my current location but just feet from where my train would have stopped had I stayed on. Oops. Luckily I’d built in extra time and wore running shoes, heels stowed in my bag, just as I used to before the kids were born.
Walking down the busy street at a nice clip reminded me of my daily pedestrian commute from Boston’s Beacon Hill to the Prudential Center in Back Bay. The fresh air and physical activity had brought a measure of sanity to my crazed days studying for two bar exams while trying to keep partners and clients happy and also plan a wedding. Now I felt that same singular purposefulness, one person striding from point A to point B for activity C. Blissfully efficient. I enjoyed the walk so much that I felt hesitant to go in when I arrived at 9:55.
I took a moment to slow my breathing, wipe my brow, and swap into my pumps. Then I checked my calendar one last time to confirm the start time. That’s when I finally noticed the date. The event would take place weeks later. On the Tuesday three days after my son’s birthday. Not the Tuesday three days after my husband’s birthday, where my brain had placed it.
I had read the email eight times. This is what it means to be so sleep-deprived that you lack the ability to discern just how dysfunctional you are.
As the information sunk in, emotion quickly built, exerting pressure like an airplane taking off. Complete calm, and then faster faster faster and up up up, with a g-force pull to the gut, heart, and head. Disbelief. Horror. Panic. Dismay. Self-reproach. Yet less than a minute later, the craft pulled level.
An odd tranquility settled in, leaving me undisturbed by the wasted money and favors. I exhaled, shrugged to no one in particular, and walked to the nearby train station, not bothering to change shoes again. The click, click, click of my heels sang out against the concrete, announcing my presence.
This time, headed in the outbound direction, I rode with my usual companions. Students. Kids. All the adults were women, the middle-aged ones featuring contradictory eyes: the skin underneath purplish red and sagging, the skin to the sides tight and colorless.
I was at home again in their company. A fellowship deeper than similar outfits and destination. But then again, I wasn’t, not exactly. My own red eyes rimmed in eyeliner looked down upon the carefully feminine folds of my skirt.
A stay-at-home mom stepping into the working world again. Both alive with possibility and dead tired. One foot in sneakers, the other in heels.
Written by Gail Cornwall. Gail is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mom of three and freelance writer. Born in St. Louis and raised in the Bay Area, she's a serial monogamist of urban living who resided in Berkeley, New York, D.C., Boston, and Seattle before committing to San Francisco. Her work has been published online by the Washington Post, Salon, the Huffington Post, and Scary Mommy, among others. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.
Photo by Sandra Kordazakis.