The focal point for the day’s work was “Wilson,” a hospital glove that my husband inflated like a balloon and decorated with a Sharpie marker so it looked like a happy face. The glove’s name came from the movie Cast Away, which we’d watched over Labor Day weekend, nestled with the dogs on our green-striped sofa as we waited on high alert.
We’d stayed home for the holiday weekend because it was brutally hot and I was enormously pregnant. Plus, we had a friend’s cautionary advice: “Don’t go to the movie theater for six months before the baby comes,” she’d warned, “because you’re about to have a long time of watching movies at home, and you’ll want at least some of them to be new.”
Labor Day was my official due date, the calculation for which had seemed very scientific and important at the time. But the holiday came and went, and a week later the doctor nudged us to let modern medicine help things along. And then, after 12 hours of furious Tetris-playing with Wilson as my witness, and enough pitocin to have put the entire Western Hemisphere into labor, I left one life behind and stepped into another.
The world’s awash with stories of motherhood’s trials and tribulations, and there is nothing in mine that warrants a spotlight. If anything, my 20 years as a mother have been remarkable only in their ordinariness.
Like other mothers, I made soft-footed midnight visits to make sure my new baby was still breathing, called the nurse hotline in a panic the first time he had a fever.
Like other mothers, I pushed my toddler on the swing until my arms ached, carved out special time with him before my second child was born, so he wouldn’t feel displaced by his baby sister.
Like other mothers I did laundry, read bedtime stories, packed lunches, went school supply shopping, and signed report cards. I photographed birthday parties, watched tee ball games, encouraged flossing, played board games and tried to limit television time. I chaperoned middle school dances and sat white-knuckled in the passenger’s seat, pretending not to be afraid, when my children learned to drive.
Like lucky mothers, I watched my children’s healthy bodies grow and change from tiny blanket-wrapped bundles into teenage and young adult shapes that are taller than I am.
Like the very luckiest mothers, I did all of these things in the company of family and friends, from the comfort of a stable nest in the luxury of a stable neighborhood, which made the work easier, though never easy.
Like some mothers, I cleaved myself into two people, one who worked as a mother and one who worked outside of motherhood. And I often thought of that cleaving, the push-me-pull-you tug between personal and professional lives, as the hardest of my labors.
But I was wrong.
Because all of that work – birthing and nursing and potty-training, the struggles over homework, tears shed for buried pets, the frantic race to get home and make dinner, the pressure to make magical memories, the guilt over always running late or missing things because of my job – all of that work is nothing compared to what comes after, when the hands-on part of mothering draws to a close.
“Roots and wings,” my mother always said, decades before anyone thought to write a “flown and grown” blog. The wings part was always directed toward me, as I was apparently, in childhood, somewhat timid and lacking independence. Roots was aimed at my sister, who routinely ran stark naked out the front door when she was a toddler.
Roots and wings let me ride my bike, alone, to the McDonald’s on Summer Avenue when I was 10. It was the parting comment when my mother dropped me off at college, when I bought a house of my own, when she waved goodbye as I drove, alone, to Boston, Wyoming and Omaha.
So I have known, intellectually, what’s been coming. I had, after all, a mother who talked about this experience from her perspective, as my sister and I made adult lives of our own. I have long felt prepared, in an almost clinical sense, for what was coming my way, after two decades of making sandwiches and staying home on Saturday nights. I had envisioned it as a release, after 20 years of binding things together.
“I could come there, you know, just for the day,” I said to my son, on the phone. “I could take you and your friends to brunch or dinner for your birthday and then head back home so I’m not in your way.” But he had already made plans of his own, had booked a tee time, made reservations to eat with his friends afterward. He said something about parents’ weekend and how he hoped I could make the trip then.
“Awesome!” I said, trying to sound convincing and thinking of my mother, who made this look all look so damned easy.
Which is why, now that the time is fully here, I am somehow surprised to discover that this is the very hardest labor of all: The painstaking work of letting go.
My Favorite Birthday Cake
Adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible
Makes two round, 9-inch layers
- 6 egg yolks OR 3 whole eggs (large)
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 2 3/4 cups all purpose flour (or 3 cups cake flour, which I never have on hand)
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1 heaping Tablespoon baking power
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 12 Tablespoons (a stick and a half) unsalted butter, at room temperature (Note: you can use salted butter if that’s what you have, just eliminate the salt from the dry ingredients)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour cake pans.
Combine egg yolks, vanilla, and half of the milk; set aside. Sift dry ingredients together and then place in a large mixing bowl (I use a stand mixer). Add the remaining milk to the dry and mix to incorporate. Add the butter and mix on low, then medium, until it starts to come together. Add the remaining wet ingredients in two batches, mixing well and scraping down the sides after each addition.
Pour (scrape) batter into prepared pans and bake for about 30 minutes. Cool in pans for 10-15 minutes then turn cakes out onto wire racks to cool completely before frosting.
This post is 28/56 in a self-directed challenge to write (or at least post) something (SOMETHING) every day – a birthday gift to me from me, because writing gives me a place to put the clutter that lives in my head.