What I Carry
by Asha Dornfest
Mommy, can you hold this? I hear this question at least once a day from my five-year old son, Luke. He asks me to hold his school bag. He asks me to hold the shiny gum wrapper he found in the parking lot. He asks me to hold the half-sucked cough drop he no longer likes the taste of. Not long ago we arrived home from an errand, and I struggled to get to the front door from the car while carrying three coats, a diaper bag, a found rubber band, an empty sippy cup, my keys, my purse, and (oh, yes) my sixteen-month old daughter, Mimi. Luke appeared before me holding a single maple leaf, its edges tinged with red. "Could you please hold this because I'm too busy to do it myself," he asked, without the slightest hint of irony in his voice.
The crazy thing is, I did it. I grabbed the damned leaf without thinking twice. With an odd hip jiggle that better distributed the weight of my cargo and caused Mimi's head to fly back at an alarming angle, I somehow freed up a pointer finger and thumb for the job, and then proceeded to the front door, while Luke threw himself toward the saucer-shaped swing hanging from the curbside cherry tree.
Another time, we were walking to the library when Luke enthusiastically sprinted ahead to demonstrate one of his favorite tricks: opening the heavy glass library door with one finger. The door's counterweight is well-balanced, and he can, indeed, do it. He pushed open the door and then proudly ushered through the weaker patrons including Mimi and myself. "Come in, and I'm holding this door open with just one lit-tle, ti-ny finger," he sang to no one. But as soon as he was through the door and I asked him to carry his coat, his brawny arms fell to his sides, limp with fatigue. "I just CAN'T," he told me, and then he puffed out his cheeks in a show of exhaustion, as if, Sysiphus-like, he'd just been rolling a massive boulder uphill.
I often catch myself toting around things Luke is capable of carrying himself. He's almost ready for kindergarten, but I forget he's no longer a wobbly toddler. I suppose it's my attempt to smooth the bumps in the road ahead of him, to lighten his load so he can fly unhindered. Or perhaps I'm trying to stretch out his dependence a little longer—the dependence I've often huffed at with impatience but find myself grasping for as it fades.
The paradox isn't lost on me. I've longed for the time when my kids are older so I can have some breathing room. At times this vision has seemed like a pinprick of light glinting at the end of a very long tunnel. Now Luke's about to start school and I have help with Mimi, so I can begin to make out the faint outline of a life that includes classes, lunch dates, and time during the day to read or wander. I'm poised on the cusp of this life, and, oddly, I find myself wanting to step back, to slow everything down, to hang onto and protect this child who's preparing himself to leave my orbit.
My protective urge, now so automatic I hardly notice it, might explain my tendency to carry around a huge backpack full of items that, in their own way, lubricate our day and keep it rolling along smoothly. On any given day, I carry on my person the following: Kleenex, diapers, baby wipes, butt cream, a washable changing pad, a bib, crackers or fruit leather, a bottle of water, Tic Tacs, sunblock, a hat (and mittens if it's cold), a small book or toy, extra pants, extra socks, a few crayons, a pad of paper, and a plastic bag for the inevitably soiled or dripping item that must return home. I carry this load like a shield I place between my children and a hostile world full of slow-moving lines, ultraviolet rays, and germy public restrooms.
As the kids get older, the backpack gets lighter. I no longer carry so many diapers and spit-up rags, and baby food jars are a thing of the past. The load I carry has changed, and I now hold a motley collection of logistical details in my mind. Doctor's appointments, playdates, birthdays, shoe sizes, school closures, whereabouts of toys and blankies, names of restaurants with palatable children's menus and decent changing tables, traffic routes that move fastest during meal- and naptimes, melodies of favorite songs. My calendar takes on some of these details so they don't clatter around inside my head like marbles. Even so, I often feel my eyebrows sagging under the weight of what I must remember each day. As I get ready for bed, I imagine removing my brain and placing it in a glass of blue antiseptic, so it will be waiting there the next morning, on my nightstand, sterile and blissfully empty.
The mental burden weighs more heavily on me than anything physical I've had to carry since I became a mother. If I'm not in command of the details at all times, the consequences are painfully obvious: forgotten coats produce miserably cold children, forgotten playdates create bitter disappointment. Like Atlas, I hold up our little world and no Heracles is coming to give me a break. I have the loving help of my husband and my parents, as well as a willing cadre of friends, but the fact remains that this weight is mine alone.
As backbreaking as the burden sometimes feels, it also strengthens and defines me. Invisibly I underlie everything my children are becoming. I am bedrock. My importance has never been greater, and though I'm relieved to feel the load shrinking as the kids get older, I know my relevance is shrinking as well. Soon my kids' shoulders will be strong enough to carry their own bags, and their PDAs will hold the details of their lives, much of which will be separate from mine. The promise of freedom is intoxicating, but already I begin to feel the ache of muscles unused, of the empty space in my arms.
Heaviest of all, heavier than the backpack or the practical details I keep in my head, is my intense, almost crippling love for my children. Nothing prepared me for how stricken and vulnerable I'd feel after they were born. Alongside the joy that sometimes seems as if it will shatter my ribs, a cold wariness has crept into my chest. Like a cobra, coiled and hissing, I'm ready to strike at anything that threatens Luke or Mimi, whether it's big, like global warming, or small, like the kid who won't take turns on the swings. For the first time, I truly understand the image of the cupid shooting unsuspecting people through the heart with the arrow of love. When I was a little girl, I used to think getting shot with an arrow would hurt, and loving someone couldn't feel like that. Well now I know. There's a reason Cupid appears as a cherubic little baby.
One afternoon we stopped at the local coffee roaster to pick up our month's supply of beans. As I lugged shopping bags and children back to the car, I noticed a young couple floating down the sidewalk ahead of us. They walked hand in hand, chatting and laughing effortlessly as they sipped cappuccino from paper cups. A tiny red leather purse hung lightly from the woman's shoulder. I assumed the pair were childless because they didn't have the urgent air about them of parents who were paying a babysitter by the hour. This couple…they appeared so buoyant, so untethered. For a moment, I missed drifting along, weightless, my direction determined by whatever circumstance happened to blow into my life. And yet, I've never felt as rooted to the world as I do now that I have children. Though at times motherhood has dragged me down, more often it has anchored me.
As my children grow up and away from me and we all take our places in the world, I hope I'll always play an important role in their lives. I want to be the trusted counselor someday, the cheering bystander, the doting grandmother. I think of my own parents, of how tall and powerful they were when I was little and how they seem smaller now that we're all getting older. Occasionally we talk about the eventualities of old age, and they always say the same thing: "Whatever happens, we don't want to be a burden on you." These people who carried me, who loved me as blindly as I love my children, who ushered me into a beautiful and terrible world, don't want to add to my load even though I'm now strong enough to carry it.
On warm afternoons Luke, Mimi, and I walk to the neighborhood park. I lumber along, carrying the backpack and pushing Mimi in the stroller while Luke bounds ahead of us, batting at low-growing tree branches and jumping over cracks in the sidewalk. We reach the playground and Luke jumps on me, puppy-like in his playfulness. I can barely keep my balance under the weight of his body, his arms and legs wrapping around me trying to find a place to grab on. We collapse on the soft grass, laughing, and then we run to the swings. Luke grabs the chains and, hopping up, plops his butt onto the black plastic strap and begs me to push him while I get Mimi situated in the baby swing. I throw off the backpack, and soon, I'm pushing them both, hard, till they shriek with delight. Luke pumps his legs in an attempt to go higher, but I keep on pushing him, knowing that soon he won't need the help, and I'll no longer feel the delicious pleasure of my hand pressing against the small of his back as I propel him away from me. Inevitably they swing back, and I push them again, laughing as they approach the blue sky.
Asha Dornfest lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, son, and daughter. She has written several books about computers, but she now concentrates on documenting the complexities of domestic life. For a look at what she's up to, visit her at www.ashaland.com.
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