That I am wearing an underwire bra and sitting in an office, a real office, is actually very ordinary. I have spent years sitting in offices like these, pistoning my knees up and down, trying to look busy, growing imperceptibly older. There is a bathroom adjacent to my office and the toilet in the accessible stall has been on an angry, continuous flush since yesterday. The office admin put in a maintenance request but she has lost favor with the maintenance guys due to: they do not like her. So the toilet continues to scream in agony. My officemates are tortured by the sound. I think numbly about the rainless places in the world, women carrying water on their heads for hours. I think about my mother and her four siblings sharing one tub of bathwater, alternating each week who gets the first bath, the cleanest bath. I think about thousands of miles of lead plumbing delivering poisoned water to children.
These thoughts crawl with calm urgency like a chyron, replaced by new thoughts and purged from my head. But the sound of the toilet doesn’t really bother me. If I were at home, a plumbing problem would be my responsibility. The fact that it isn’t my responsibility feels almost good, like hearing a child scream on an airplane but it’s not your child.
I go to work, and it’s fine. But then the next day I wake up and remember I have to get dressed and do it again, and it seems impossible and huge, like when you wake up the first morning at home with your new baby and realize you have to keep getting up and caring for this baby, what, forever? Ha ha ha ha no way oh shit I’m fucked.
The first week I was away from my kids this summer was to visit friends in Ohio. I got struck with that mid-July horror where you decide summer is FUNCTIONALLY OVER and you start to panic about executing your precious little plans. I barely had time to enjoy the anticipation of my trip before I was already on the plane to go meet the babies my friends had had since I’d been there last.
The relationship I have to my friends’ kids, whose ages range from just born to eight years old, is unlike any other in my life, especially the ones who don’t live near me. In the way that I often feel that my friends are an extension of myself, I catch myself feeling that I possess their children, the way I feel that I possess my own. (I don’t possess either.) I want to scoop them up and chew on their ears. I want to drum on their little butts. To not do this requires extraordinary impulse control, a marshmallow test I cannot believe I am passing. I am a crazed fan who knows everything about them and they barely remember me. Their parents gently remind them.
I would shoot Ronald Reagan to impress them. Of course I would.
I’m gone for six days and it’s too long. I am having the best time but I spend the week there with that queasy feeling like when you’ve been dumped or someone dies and you are able to get distracted from it for tens of minutes before you remember something is missing. Maybe the queasiness is also because at that point in my pregnancy, halfway through, I was still feeling sick if I turned my head too quickly or caught a rogue wave of fast food smells off the street.
I fly home into Baltimore and take Amtrak to DC where my family will be meeting me. I feel like an electric fence, jolting powerfully from anything that brushes against me. I feel proud of the train for being so old yet still moving so fast. I check my checking account balance on my phone and feel proud of it for being so small yet daring to exist, like the kid on the soccer team who is technically too young to play but their mom needed them to be on the same team as their older sibling. Look at them go. They’re trying so hard. The other kids are so big.
I can’t decide if this is pregnancy hormones frying my circuits or I missed a dose of my meds or I just really miss my kids. Emerging from Union Station into the street is like walking into a hot, upholstered mouth but I immediately spot our van and Nick behind the wheel somehow. I am reminded of the time I flew to meet Nick in Portugal and he overslept and I didn’t have a phone so I just waited at Arrivals with my book and eventually, of course, he appeared. Nick is usually where you need him to be.
Our kids are huge, the kind of accelerated growth that happens when you dare to look away from them for longer than a day. Their voices from the backseat are almost indistinguishable to me, sometimes high-pitched, sometimes gravely, always pleading, shrieking, never chill. I would drum on their butts if I could, but they are strapped in like roller coaster riders, so I do the next best thing: I reach back squeeze their soft play-dough-temperature calves until they ask me to stop.
I made them come to DC because the next morning my friend in DC is hosting a birthday party for her son which will involve a man showing up with Sterilite bins containing various exotic reptiles, and I do not intend to miss this. We stay in our other friend’s house for the night, empty because of pre-existing vacation plans. I offer to watch a horror movie with Nick after the kids are down, probably because I feel that things are unbalanced after my week of freedom and his week of solo parenting. Of course, I fall asleep before this can ever happen, which Nick unfortunately knows to expect.
I go on to spend two more weeks separated from my kids, the first for a heavenly kid-free trip to New Mexico with Nick, and the second for a less heavenly week alone in the house while Nick takes the kids to Ohio to visit his terminally ill father. I think I am going to get a bunch of house projects done with my time, but of course, I mostly sleep and it rains every day.
They say that if your kids don’t annoy the shit out of you that you don’t spend enough time with them, and I also believe in the inverse of that, sorta: that if you don’t have the inner flint and steel to muster a spark of joy from parenting that you are probably not spending enough time away from them. Obviously the last eighteen months have fucked the logistics of accomplishing the latter but I’m pretty sure I overdid it. Girlbossed too close to the sun, as they say on TikTok.
At Katie’s house, I get to hold a yellow boa constrictor named Flash on my shoulders, Britney-style, and try not to think about how it feels like if a semi-erect dick was cool to the touch. Some of the adults there are turning down the opportunity to wear the snake and I’m surprised because the last year and a half has been so boring that if Bill, the guy with all the reptiles in Sterilites, asked to put his own dick on my shoulder, I might say yes just to shake things up.
The maintenance staff has finally fixed the toilet at work, or at least, they have disconnected the water and put up a sign begging us not to use it. The minor indignities of butts-in-seats office culture build up all week like a snowfall, but I am struggling to be too mad about it. In a few months, I will go on leave and enjoy complete disengagement from all this silliness and because of that it fails to pierce the surface now. And after that, I guess, I will figure out what the rest of my life looks like. Three kids, sure, but also closing the tab in my mind that has been open for seven or eight years: the tab of access to maternity or family leave being tied to my tenure with any certain employer.
The last time I didn’t have to think about that, I was in my twenties and I wasn’t anyone’s mom. Nick and I had never made a major purchase together. And even when I wasn’t anticipating motherhood, I was supporting Nick through grad school and afraid to take any risks with my ability to provide income. It’s not that I expect to be draped in financial ease—we still have loans and debts and will have, lol, three children to support—but the idea of that one ribbon of freedom is a cause for celebration. I do not know what it will feel like. I basically cannot imagine. I guess I could ask a dude.
Jillian Anthony’s go-to boundary: “I didn’t ask.” (Subscribe to Cruel Summer Book Club here)
Emily Gould on the state of the literary Jonathans.
Leon Neyfakh’s Grub Street Diet made me miss living in New York, a place I have never lived.
Everything Claire Carusillo has been writing for new Gawker has been great, but this recent one hits so many of my interests: Mormonism, wasting money on dubiously effective personal care gizmos, preoccupation with dying.
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