A Room of My Own

You’d think a trip to Paris would cheer a person up. Instead, ever since we’ve been back, I can’t shake this cloud hanging over my head.

I don’t even know what it is. Melancholy? Fear of death? An early mid-life crisis? And poor Austin. Ever since I first stepped off the plane at the old Mueller airport on that 105°F August day in 1989, I fell in love with this town. With that down to earth vibe that feels just right, Austin has always felt like home. But the poor girl is a bit of a wallflower next to Paris, and I find myself feeling guilty for my faltering loyalty.

But I can’t blame my mood on this town or any other. The truth of the matter is that any vacation from my life as stay-at-home mom that is longer than three days is enough to make me go a bit mad. And 12 days, how long this trip lasted, well . . . there’s your explanation for the cloud of gloom.

You could conclude it’s all the freedom I experience on vacation that goes straight to my head. But I don’t think it’s the freedom; it’s the glamour. I argue that there’s a fair amount of freedom in being a stay-at-home mom. Everybody has to serve somebody, as they say, but whom do I serve? My toddler? My preschooler? My second grader? Yes, if they barf, I have to clean it up. If they cry at 4:00 a.m., I have drag my sad self from my husband’s warm arms to soothe them. And nobody likes washing poop out of anything. But as far as my days go, I’m fairly free. As long as I have the mental strength to power through the guilt that will surely follow, I could spend the entire day on the couch if I wanted. (A little tip: don’t drink two of my Mexican Martinis plus a beer in one night and expect anything else but such a day waiting for you when you wake. You might as well just set out the blanket that will spend the next day covering your head before you stumble your way to bed.)

But the glamour? Completely absent from stay-at-home mom-ness, I don’t have to tell you or anyone else that. Moms know it. So does everybody else. Show me a mom that looks polished or sexy in the middle of your average weekday, and I’ll open the door a bit more to catch a glimpse of the nanny schelpping the laundry up the stairs in the background.

I’ve had the supreme luck to go on three solid vacations alone with my husband since our lives as Husband and Wife, Parents of Many, began. (My husband says two of these vacations don’t count, since they were trips to see friends get married, but he’s thinking with his single-guy head when he says that.) We have our parents, babysitters extraordinaire, to thank for these glorious breaks from reality. Each trip, first to Seattle, then to San Diego, and most recently to Europe, has been a joy-filled opportunity for my husband and I to reconnect, and for me to . . . curl my hair.

On these trips, the sheer volume of time I’ve been able to spend on my appearance has left me giddy, spinning out of control toward complete self-absorption. At home, I have to choose. For a special night out, I might have time to dry my hair OR curl it OR pick out a really great outfit. Never all three. But on vacation, well! All that and accessorizing to boot. My priorities haven’t always aligned so perfectly with those of Scooby Doo‘s Daphne, but put me on a plane these days, and before long I’ll be philosophizing about the pros and cons of dying my hair blonde.

Part of it is the lack of balance I have in this area of my life. Three babies in a span of five years (without a nanny) is a lot of work, and now while they’re young there just isn’t a whole lot of extra time in my day for taking care of myself. Being a bit of a dreamer, I also spend precious time each day in general “sitting at the table thinking” mode, which is time, if I were more focused, that could be spent applying makeup. But I yam what I yam, and so it is that I often spend a whole day looking like crap. It’s discouraging.

Is this gloomy feeling just about vanity? Ugh. That would be embarrassing. I never even realized how important my physical appearance was to me until these last few years, when I’ve seen the first signs of it slipping away. The ironic thing is that when I was in my twenties, I didn’t think too terribly much about how I looked, mainly because I didn’t see myself as a sexual being. But falling in love with my husband changed that. Seeing myself through his understanding and appreciative eyes has opened all kinds of doors inside me.

But I know it’s not just vanity. The temporary high of wearing red lipstick and a scarf through the streets of Paris had the odd effect of making me feel somehow more important, as if personal style has anything to say about a person’s value. When I returned to this life of caring for my children (in chapstick and jeans), the letdown was dramatic. This makes no sense because caring for my children is hugely important—both in the general sense of our world and to me as a personal priority. But the gloom lurks nonetheless.

I told my mom about my gray month, and how I wondered if all this worry about my declining physical appearance and my unglamorous life was just camouflage for a fear of death. Her answer surprised me. She said in her experience, random fears of death ultimately turned out to be covering up some latent and unexamined drive to do a particular thing, something she’d been working up the courage to begin, such as have a baby or go back to school.

Since that conversation I’ve given the whole thing some thought (big surprise), and I think the difficulty that I am experiencing is due to frustrated creative energy. It occurred to me a few years back that creative energy and sexual energy are one and the same, or at least closely related, and that this energy can express itself through a variety of ways: sexuality, desire to make a child, actually growing a child, or artistic work. Although more than one of these modes of expression can occur at the same time, I do think that we have a relatively finite amount of creative energy channeling through us, so if that energy is coming out primarily in one area, it may be less strong in other areas. For example, when I’ve been pregnant or nursing, I have not felt a strong urge to create anything, nor have I (with some notable and happy exceptions) felt very sexual. I have always assumed that all my creative life force was going into the creation and growth of the child.

But I am no longer growing any children—my creative energy is back, baby! Each day around 10:00 a.m., as I lug the laundry basket from room to room or finish the morning’s dishes, the light from the north-facing windows warms my heart, and I feel the pull of my Hanafuda collage project sitting on my desk or of words unwritten beckoning me to write. Some days I ignore the chores and sit down at my desk, which is better than nothing but generally leaves me feeling unfulfilled; with two little kids bounding around I just don’t get the opportunity to immerse myself fully in my work that my personality craves.

The other night I had dinner with an old friend and happily, a new one, and we talked about Virginia Woolf’s timeless call for women to have a room of their own to pursue their creative endeavors. With our modern friend, technology, I don’t need a room; I have my netbook—just point me toward a park bench! But she also recognized that we need money to support ourselves so that we might create. Ah, yes. That’s what my little scenario is lacking: funds to pay for someone else to watch my kids.

I must remember to be patient, and to have some perspective. With my youngest son now two and a half, I am inching toward the day when I might be so lucky as to get such a window on a regular basis. Next year, my daughter will start kindergarten, and perhaps we can apply the money we now spend on her once-a-week preschool to a similar class for my youngest. These kids grow old so quickly, and I often think of the day that will come when they’re all pre– or post-pubescent and no longer want anything to do with me, when my heart will break. Now they want so much of me that there’s barely a drop left over at the end of the day for myself. Why does everything like this have to be so intense? Why can’t we spread all this love out just a little, so that I could catch my breath now and not feel so rotten when they’re teenagers? But life doesn’t work that way, does it? It gives us what it gives us. I’ve got nothing wise to say about this. Writing about it just helps me deal with it a bit better. Thanks for reading; you’re my therapist!

© Amy Daniewicz and Beneath the Trees

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