Soothe the Baby and Stir the Soup

 We arrived at the mountain in the early afternoon, before the warm Autumnal light of New England started to gush through the trees like golden honey. Walking in the woods is our family medicine, and after days of online school with little joy or movement, it’s crucial to let our animal bodies run around in the woods.

In the parking lot, something spooked our gigantic puppy Charlie, and he turned and bolted without realizing I was right behind him. His skull made contact with my leg at such a velocity that astonishing pain spiked through my knee. He twisted his leash around us both, all while trying to escape, pulling me backwards so my hip cracked into the fender of a parked car. It all happened so fast, that I mostly laughed and tried to stay upright, but actually, ouch.

Given that we had sat in front of screens for the majority of the day, I insisted that we persevere with our hike, dammit. I tried not to favor my tender leg, so as to reassure them.

“I’ll go slow behind you guys, don’t wait for me! See you at the top!”

I meant it too — I swear there wasn’t a trace of martyrdom in my voice because I was already imagining a gloriously silent semi-solo hike, fantasizing about having a few uninterrupted thoughts allllll by myselffffffffffff.

My 6 year old consoled me;
 “I’ll take care of you mom. I’ll hold your hand. You’ll be ok!”

My heart softened, of course, but the sweet silence of the trails was far more alluring than <ahem>, even more quality time with my son. 
 Despite my many desperate yet casual sounding attempts to dissuade him otherwise, the 6 year old insisted on chaperoning me up the mountain.

I was suddenly captive to yet another Minecraft/ Space Exploration/ Close Encounters with Bigfoot/ Super Smash Bros/ Capturing Dragons mashup monologue.
 We tromped along, and I fell into my rhythm of the responses that I mindlessly dole out to indicate that I’m listening (even though I’m not); 
 “Umm hmm”
 “Oh cool!”

My own thoughts, desperate for some fresh air, darted among the shadows of the 6 year-old’s Really Big Super LOUD and certainly urgent crazy important stories, but they were understandably furtive and fleeting.

My child momentarily brought me back to earth, and I felt his little hand close around a few of my fingers. I noticed how his little bones are firming up; the squishy toddler hands have all but vanished. 
 I allowed the sweetness of his little voice really dance in my ears for a moment. I looked up the trail at his 12 year old brother Arlo, whose voice is already growing deeper, and walking on legs that are well on their way to being long and sturdy adult legs. I’m not lacking evidence that children grow up unbelievably fast. No matter how many times I witness the unfurling, it’s still just impossible to comprehend.

Here’s the thing — I can be both completely fed up with my kids AND in desperate need of alone time AND still marvel at them and all their sweetness. I can of course love them endlessly, AND then also want to run screaming down the trail away from another Minecraft story that lasts 37 minutes or often even longer. These revelations aren’t anything new, it’s only that women are still expected to be delighted with and unimpeded by the endurance sport that caregiving has become. We’re definitely not having fun anymore.

We hadn’t encountered another person the entire ascent, but there were quite a few people at the summit, so I pulled our masks out of my pocket, first helping my son with his. A young couple lay canoodling in the grass, languid in the post-election pre-sunset bliss, looked on with confusion as my young son started yelping and moaning once his mask was on his face.

He emitted mask-muffled bellows over the treetops below;

“It smells SO HORRIBLE”

Oh dear, yes, I had hastily stuffed our masks into the same pocket with the liver dog treats. I mean, we’re training a puppy during a pandemic, so masks and smelly dog treats just naturally go together in one’s pockets, wouldn’t you agree?

I placed my own mask over my face, and yes indeedy it was overpoweringly repulsive, but we wore them anyway, BECAUSE IT’S WHAT YOU DO. 
 Arlo and Charlie were both excited to see me once reached the top — the puppy because I feed him, and the pre-teen because I had the water in my pack.

I’m a lowkey food truck without the truck.

We sat on a huge rock together and looked out over our beloved and ever-gorgeous Pioneer Valley and Connecticut river. We gazed out over the patchwork quilt that spread out below us, our eyes drinking in the trees, fields, and mountains.

We chugged silently together, masks on our chins, while I dug in my pack for the collapsible doggie water dish. The puppy excitedly rushed over when he heard the gentle glug glug into his bowl, and plunged his nose into the water, lapping eagerly, but as soon as he started, he somehow grabbed the dish with his teeth and tossed it up, managing to dump half his water directly into my sneaker.

In almost the same motion, he yanked his leash, forcing me to drop the open water bottle, which clanged straight down onto the rock, sending up a geyser of cold water, which soaked my chest down to my bra and into my belly button.

The metal water bottle-on-rock noise scared the nervous rescue puppy nearly out of his floppy hound skin, and again he pulled his leash, sending my bottle cascading down the grassy slope, the last sips of my water splashing out in little gushing intervals of sadness and impending dehydration. The whole rapid slapstick event left him cowering, and me all soggy and sputtering.

At least I stopped thinking about my liver-infused face mask, the soul-cringe embarrassment of living in a country where millions of people voted for an actual fascist, my homeschooling woes, climate change, and even my wet sock for a few moments.

We started our descent, and like an experienced meteorologist, I predicted a fight brewing between my kids when it was only a little pissy flicker on the horizon. Despite my attempts at distracting, separating, and soothing, they were both dedicated to verbally ripping into one another with increasing ferocity. I suggested a stop for ice cream in a desperate effort to reset to a gentler fraternal mood.

‘Perhaps we should keep celebrating this historic election with soft serve?

There was a surprisingly long line for a November evening, but we New Englanders love our highly processed sugary dairy products, even if we’re wearing hoodies and hats while we consume them.

Somehow I had missed the ‘cash only’ sign scribbled on a paper plate hanging over the cashier, so I had to conduct a quick dig through my pockets/wallet/purse, and sadly unearthed only enough for the kid’s two cones.

As I walked back to the car, I wondered how a business can be cash only in 2020, during a pandemic, no less? By the time I arrived, my kids were yelling, the 6 year old was already scream-crying.

I suddenly felt like that whiny-ass little pessimist kid Alexander of the ‘Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad, Day’ fame. Nothing was going my way, everything sucks, wah wah wah, (except I kinda like lima beans and always love kissing on tv).

I pulled my younger out of the car, and we sat on the curb in the dark while I held him on my lap. I’m not sure how many times in my mothering career that I’ve been cried at (or on) in public. This time in particular it took some effort to just hold him and not join in: my own tears were splashing against the thresholds of my weary eyelids, but I held them at bay.

As I felt the subtle spreading warmth of my son’s tears soaking into my shirt, I thought about all the skills I’ve gained since the pandemic began. Interestingly, none of my newly acquired talents are quite right for my resume:

· All day snack dispenser

· Lackluster PE coach

· Reluctant and under-qualified homeschool administrator

· Zoom meeting IT troubleshooter

· Sibling brawl mediator

· Lonely child soother

· Recess facilitator

· Long story listener

· Able to Cook one full actual dinner with real vegetables that no one will eat except the adults and then realizing the futility and making a second dinner for the kids and not allowing it to crush your soul (wait, is that technically a skill or just about survival?)

· All day dish washer

· Laundry Ignorer

I’m sure I’m overlooking about 50 different new or enhanced skills, but isn’t that where capitalism kneecaps us? If you can’t make money on it, then it’s basically meaningless. Which means, of course, that women’s work and contributions are often overlooked and taken for granted.

The sunset was nearly over, but the spectacular glimmers of orange, pink, and fuchsia clung to the clouds overhead, making it difficult to fully succumb to despair. My child continued crying as I straddled the striking dichotomy of my current reality; the acute boredom/exhaustion of true non-stop parenting, paired with awe and gratitude for our sweet little life where we can hike and stare at the clouds while awaiting ice cream cones (even if I have to scrape the coins from the bottom of my bag to pay for them).

When I signed up for parenthood, I had no idea how many whiplash moments of juxtapositions I would be experiencing. Moreover, I had no idea that I’d eventually be enrolled in extreme parental bootcamp through the most repulsive mess of a presidency that our Nation has ever endured. But that’s what parents do, we ride the waves and wipe the baby’s tears as we go.

An older woman in a walking across the parking lot spotted me with a sobbing child. Her eyes twinkled over her mask, and she cocked her head sympathetically while she gently thumped her fist to her heart in a gesture of solidarity. In that wordless moment, I was held by the timeless web of women, mothers, caregivers, nurturers, and gentle compassionate beings. That small exchange reminded me that although we trudge through our days so isolated from other parents, we are most certainly not alone.

Before that moment of shared maternal humanity, I could’ve sworn that if cut, my veins would just puff out dust instead of blood, I’m that wrung out from all the mothering I do every day. A little spring returned to my step, giving me enough to fuel me through another evening of dinner, dishes, stories, tucking in, and fear-soothing. I silently thanked that parking-lot grandma for helping me to feel less lonely in my drudgery.

When I finally took off my one wet sock and soggy bra, and treated myself to 1/2 pint of Ben and Jerry’s (to make up for the cone I didn’t get earlier), I realized that I felt guilty for not having done more with my day.

Why didn’t I earn more money today? Why didn’t I work on my novel? Why didn’t I reorganize my desk? I should’ve… I meant to…

My exhaustion doesn’t feel acceptable or allowed because I’ve been trained to believe that caregiving and raising children isn’t actual work.

If caregiving really took time, thought, and energy, then certainly there’d be some provisions or protections in place for caregivers now that we’re multiple months into online learning for children across the country, right? RIGHT?!

But that’s the norm for many mothers right now; We keep giving care, even when we have no community or public supports. We keep going, even when we can’t think straight with all the debilitating stress around us. We continue on, even when it’s nearly impossible to work a full time job while providing non-stop ‘intensive’ parenting and homeschooling. We still soothe the baby and stir the soup, even when our socks are wet, and our masks smell like liver treats… Or when the pain is worse, much worse.

I almost didn’t recognize that I’ve fully swallowed the myth that caregiving is comprised of the small, background tasks that won’t interfere with making a living or enjoying a succession of coherent thoughts. Many American women are watching their childcare evaporate, career options wither, and stress and anxiety proliferate. Through it all, not only have we blamed ourselves for these ‘failures’, but many of our white colleagues voted to continue rolling back our hard-won progress of the last 50 years.

I’ve been reluctant to attempt the painful exercise of considering how the pandemic has savagely exposed the glaring inhumanity and injustice for low income people, immigrants, women, and people of color. I feel so disgusted that many white women voted to deepen and expand the damage that the outgoing administration brutally inflicted on this beautiful country. Yet here we are in this disappointing yet unsurprising reality. There’s women that look out for one another, and then there’s those other women who won’t think twice about crushing anyone in their path.

As we can see from exit polls, white women carried the vote for Trump. Many women who have carried babies, carried aging parents, carried innumerable thankless tasks, also carry significant privilege, but chose to attempt to hoard it for themselves. The white women that voted for the outgoing administration proved that they are willing to keep others from accessing equal rights, strength, or power. Those republican votes were cast by women who fear losing their tenuous hold on their status and security, as well as their flimsy and conditional association to men with money and actual power.

Maybe every single woman I know has been bone-achingly exhausted since March because the fractures in our society that women have always been forced to smooth over and ignore are now in sharp relief, exposed for all to see, and yet WE’RE ALL STILL TRYING TO ACT LIKE WE’RE FINE. If we’re not constantly working hard, and earning money, and denying our very human needs and emotions or ourselves and our children, then we aren’t properly praying at the altar of the all-powerful dollar. That’s just it; so many of us are still walking uphill despite our wounds because we have no choice. We’re continuously being screwed by our toxic capitalist society AND by other women that we’d hoped and assumed would be allies and sisters.

Isn’t that the ultimate mindfuck that’s been exposed in 2020? That many women are expected to smile pretty for 40+ hours of zoom calls for work with a quiet spotless kitchen in the background while also simultaneously running a mixed-age interactive and emotionally intelligent learning pod, with organic homemade crackers and locally sourced hummus. The expectations on caregivers have grown increasingly absurd and impossible to meet. No wonder most of us feel like failures, when really, it’s our society that has failed us. On top of it all, women who should be our sisters and allies have proven yet again that they don’t have our backs.

To varying degrees, we’ve all been victimized by our extractive capitalist society, yet black, brown, and indigenous people voted to preserve Democracy and to repair the safety net that many Americans rely on to survive. Conversely, many white women have internalized the scarcity mindset so profoundly that they’ve succumbed to thinking that there will never be enough to go around, and the way to succeed is to step firmly on the throat of anyone who may be slightly beneath them. The oppression that women endure, no matter how subliminal, has inspired many minority voters to a vote democratic in record numbers, while instead a whole swath of white women worked to divide us even farther, instead favoring possessions and ever-elusive status.

Far too many of us are hiking up this endless mountain with bashed up knees, soggy bras, wet socks, and liver-scented face masks, while listening to a boring long-winded story, and we won’t even get an ice cream cone after getting screamed at in a parking lot. If you find yourself sitting there, look for me, and I will remind you that you are not alone.

We are stronger together, and we need one another, but we don’t need to waste our precious time and energy reaching out to the white women who place their own interests over black, brown, and indigenous people. We are strong enough to soothe our babies, support one another, and keep stirring the pot for progressive change. Please join me in vowing to be among the sisterhood of women who refuse to give up on solidarity and shared strength. As exhausted as I am, I promise that I’ll be your parking-lot grandma, as I hope that you’ll be there for another woman. Let’s keep it going on and on, until we turn the tides towards compassion, goodness, and shared humanity.

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