Years ago, well before I had kids, a friend and her baby boy visited me for the weekend. I was enthralled with this little guy. I chased him around my apartment, and did as many silly things as I could come up with to make him giggle. He and I made up a game where he’d run toward a window in my living room, I’d pretend to run after him, and he’d smack his hands on the glass. “Game” should probably be used loosely here, but delightful and apparently hilarious it was, and we played until it was his bedtime.
While my friend put him to bed, a process I paid no attention to except for the fact that it seemed to take an awful long time, I studied his handprints on the window—cute little smudges on the glass, that, if I leaned closer, I could even see his fingerprints.
“Oh, sorry about that,” my friend said, barely above a whisper when she returned to the living room.
“Sorry about what?” I asked, turning towards her.
“The fingerprints,” she said, and then pointed to the window. “On your glass,” she added. “Where’s your Windex? I’ll clean it up,” she offered.
“My Windex?” I asked, and it’s not that I didn’t know what Windex was or where it was (though I had to think about it for a second), I couldn’t understand why my friend—someone I hadn’t seen in over a year, someone who I could talk to for hours over mugs of coffee, someone I missed—wanted to clean off my window.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, brushing a hand in the air as though I was brushing away a pesky gnat—inconsequential but surprisingly annoying. “I kind of like the hand prints up there,” I admitted. I thought they were cute, and perhaps evidence of a dream, a curious, “someday, maybe,” though I didn’t tell her this.
She didn’t look at me like I was crazy, but like I was weird, and there was an equally weird pause between us—something that never once happened in our years of knowing each other. I looked at my hands, and she turned toward the kitchen.
“How about the dishes,” she said. “Can I help with the dishes?”
“We had frozen pizza and salad,” I stated. That was my specialty, and that day, I’d even bought croutons to fancy the bag of salad up. “It’ll take two seconds to clean up.”
“We used plates and glasses,” she told me.
“I have a dishwasher,” I returned.
“It won’t be a full load. You’re gonna leave them in there—dirty—all night?”
I stood, and walked over to the bottle of wine I’d opened and put on the coffee table a couple of hours ago, and that she’d promptly put on the dining table, out of her son’s reach. “I think I am,” I said, pouring myself a glass.
I offered her one, but she turned it down. She was still standing when I returned to the living room, and I almost said, “Go ahead and clean my house because it looks like you’re in pain,” but instead, I sat down, hoping it would prompt her to sit down, too.
It worked. She rubbed her eyes and let out not a sigh, but something deeper, more confessional, and I wasn’t sure I was supposed to have paid witness to it.
“You’re good with him,” she said.
“He’s a cutie pie,” I told her.
“You have so much energy.”
What I should’ve said was I’m not responsible for a human being; that I had space in my brain for messing around because I had no clue and thus concern for things like food allergies, getting a baby to sleep, diaper rash, potty training, separation anxiety. But I didn’t know any of that—I was blissfully ignorant, and so I shrugged and said, “He’s a good kid,” as though goodness is what makes being a parent easy.
A seemingly blink of an eye later, and I am standing in the diaper aisle at a grocery store after having dropped Hadley off at her first day of kindergarten. I am comparing the prices of Huggies, Pampers, and store brand diapers, but there is no need for this. Neither of my girls is in diapers. I don’t need anything in this aisle—no baby food, no bottles or pacifiers, no diapers—and yet, here I stand—my service no longer needed.
“I came here for something else,” I say, holding my younger daughter’s hand. Harper will start preschool in a couple of days, and this morning, I sat down to make a list of to-dos, as normal, and one of them was to get something at the grocery store after dropping Hadley off at her first day of kindergarten.
I have made it here, but I have forgotten what it is I’m supposed to be doing.
I purchase cleaning supplies—Mrs. Meyer’s all-purpose cleaner, the tomato-basil scent, Clorox wipes, paper towels, and yes, Windex. I don’t think I need these things, I’m sure I have them at home, but I buy them anyway, and I spend the rest of the day cleaning and doing laundry. I even make meal plans.
I am concerned a reader or several will think at this point, “She’s saying housekeeping is a cover up for something deeper; that once we become mothers we cannot control anything and so we learn to make meatloaf, we fold the fitted bed sheets like champs, we wipe fingerprints from the windows.”
I’m not suggesting that, I don’t think. I come from a long line of incredible women who kept house like artists. My Aunt Joyce hand painted all our name cards for place settings—the flowers that seemed to flutter around our names matched the ones in vases she’d put on the table, ones she’d found in the field beyond her house. My Aunt Lucy made the most delicious coffee-cake, now named, “Buttery Pieces of Heaven,” and once, created a Strawberry Shortcake play mat for me and my cousin Tara that was so detailed I believed I was one of the Shortcake gang. My mom is hands down, the best cook there ever was, and anyone walking inside my childhood home immediately felt welcome, and hungry, and not just for the food she’d prepared, but for the belly laughs that would bounce off her walls from sitting around her dining room table—the night sky a deep navy, but only just beginning.
But my Aunt Joyce was a teacher, and an active member in her church (I think she helped to start one). My Aunt Lucy ran my uncle’s successful business, and eventually started her own, and my mom was the loudest and smartest librarian in the Midwest. Well known authors specifically asked to work with her because she could point them to something they had no idea they were looking for. Plus, she could hit a softball out of the park almost every time she came to bat. There wasn’t anything my mom couldn’t do.
Hadley was six weeks old when I was invited to my first cookie exchange. What happens is you bake a batch of cookies and bring them to the party and all the rest of the cookie party goers bring their batches, and everyone gets a nice mash up of every kind of cookie ever created.
I could not wait to go. I picked out and ironed my outfit—a black mini-skirt, a black and white v-neck with sparkly threads sewn into the stripes’ borders, my tall black boots. I was going to bake “Peanut Butter Surprises,” a Martha Stewart recipe that is basically a peanut butter cookie with little pieces of chocolate in the center. (Surprise!)
And I did bake them. At 2:30 in the morning.
After her 2 a.m. feeding, and before her 5 a.m. one—the one she’d stay up for until nine? Ten? Two in the afternoon? Who knows, but after the 2 a.m. feeding, I walked, pranced really, into the kitchen, pulled out the peanut butter and the flour, the sugar and vanilla, and began baking.
Nothing would stop me from baking these cookies. Not sleep, not my breasts so rock solid from milk I could probably use them as a shelf for a cup of coffee and a book, not the small voice that said, “Callie, this is crazy. It’s the middle of the night on a Wednesday. The party is on Saturday, and also, you can probably still go if you can’t bring cookies. You just had a baby.”
I told that voice to shut up. I could do this. I wanted to do this. Because if I could bake a damn batch of cookies—Martha Stewart cookies at that—I could do anything. I could do it all.
“But that was years ago,” I want to write. “I have figured it out. I can manage my perfectionist tendencies. I accept that there is no such thing as doing it all.” However, I have dozens of stories like this. The setting and the events might change, but the arc does not: I believe my definition, my essence, my soul, and probably my salvation if I’m being real honest, is wrapped up in what it is I get done. How can doing nothing ever be an option? How can giving nothing ever be okay?
And so, poetry from Melissa Reeser Poulin:
I said to the ocean
Jesus if you give me
this I will give you
I have which is
nothing which is endless
like the landscape
I am wrong. My mom could not do it all. Neither could my aunts. I think they knew that, and I think knowing it allowed them to give their endless landscapes of nothing away.
And their nothing turned into so many somethings.
Give me this, Jesus. Give me motherhood. I will give back everything and nothing.
Make it so that I leave the fingerprints on the glass.