Every so often, I will look at my sons — sleeping in their carseats, say, or leaping from one hotel-room bed to another — and I will think, Wow. Casting did a really good job finding these child actors to play my kids. I mean, they inhabit their roles so fully, these two. They’re always spot-on with their cues, their entrances and exits. They never forget a line — or, if they do, then they’re masters of improvisation. I never get the feeling that their motivations are anything less than character-appropriate, and it’s always clear that they’ve done their research. They know how to be kids — and, what’s more, they know how to be my kids.
I’m less convinced of my own performance. It ebbs and flows, but I spend some unquantifiable amount of time as a parent with some sense that I’m only playing a part, that the director could yell “Cut!” at any moment and that I could — in fact, that I will — return to my “real” life at the end of this gig.
Not that I’m sure what that “real” life would entail, although part of me imagines that it must be in Manhattan, where I live on the second floor of a brownstone and read the New York Times with my morning coffee (in this life, I drink coffee instead of tea, and live somewhere where the New York Times is available every day, ON THE DAY IT WAS PUBLISHED, no less) and write all day. (After the yoga.) Write about what, though, if not my children, or parenting, or my mother? This is a good question, and generally where that particular fantasy peters out.
It’s not like these moments of disjunct occur only during particularly challenging moments, those times when one might conceivably want to break character, break that fourth wall, smash it with a hammer, even. Actually, my mother-as-movie moments tend to occur mostly in those moments that are archetypal: Rowan’s senior-kindergarten class concert, taking Isaac to buy shoes. They happen when I mother in public, when I am surrounded by other parents, all of whom seem to be inhabiting their roles fully while I’m not quite sure how I got here, fully prepared for somebody to call me on my bluff. We crossed the border a couple of Sundays ago, and the customs agent asked me, “Are these your children?” And after a weekend of shepherding the small people in the backeat to the train museum and the aquarium and the waterpark and letting them eat hotdogs and macaroni and cheese in front of the cable television channel several days running, I had the urge to answer, “If you say so.” Nudge nudge, wink wink.
Rowan and Isaac, of course, don’t imagine that I could be anything other than one of their mothers, just as I know that as a child I harboured some vague notion of my parents as having only half-realized, dreamlike lives before my brother and I were born. Even today, I can’t quite shed my own childhood understanding of my parents as only having ever existed, unquestioningly, to parent, as being pleasantly surprised by their empty nest, blinking at all the space. It never would have occurred to me that they thought about their own parenting, much less the lives they might have otherwise led. I mean, look at them, circa 1972:
There they are, in the empty space of their living room, which they didn’t furnish until I was at least four years old. (That furniture, by the way, now lives in my own living room, because the past, don’t you know, repeats itself. And also because they had very nifty Danish modern tastes at the time.) And I guess I think of them as some sort of metaphor of that room, that photograph: only just coming into existence, characters on what is, essentially, an empty stage, just starting to be filled in, courtesy the children’s arrival.
Jasmin Darznik writes in last Sunday’s New York Times (which arrived at my house in Thunder Bay the following Tuesday) that “it’s difficult to imagine our mothers as women with stories and selves that exist separately from ours. So firmly do we hold on to the mothers of our memories that even as adults faced with some irrefutable proof of their lives before and apart from us, we still insist on our own versions of their lives.”
I think she’s right, and I’m also wondering if this feeling, this idea of myself as a recurring character in an ongoing series, is some kind of resistance to the idea that my sons may not see me as anything but their mother.
But, you know, I listen to Rowan’s questions about my own mother (whose death still fascinates and confuses him in equal measures), about my life and what I did as a child, and I see him trying to make sense of the idea of the idea that we existed before him. It’s still a tough concept, though: when I showed him that photograph above, for example, he initially thought that he must be the baby on the mother’s knee — he is always already the kid, after all, and I am always already the mom, not a baby.
I sometimes wonder if I write this blog so that I will have a record of the fact that I’ve thought about these things, that I wasn’t some kind of automa-mommy, some blank slate filled in by children. And yet, it’s also a record of how irrefutably my life is tied up in theirs — at least, right now, at least for this particular act. There’s the mama part, and there’s the non grata part, and, most days, the two add up to some kind of whole.