I’ve been reading Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott again. I’ve read it at least four times since Joseph was born, and it has become my go to Mother-Anxiety medicine. I love it for it’s total unmeditated-ness: it’s just a journal of her son’s first year. It is hilarious and true and excruciating and comforting all at once. Anyway, this go-round I’m grateful to it for reminding me that my writing doesn’t have to turn into literature or be very intellectual or be High Art or anything, Operating Instructions proves just how valuable it is to just tell your story exactly how it is. So in that spirit, reflections on the last 24 hours:
Yesterday was Joseph’s first day of school. I mean, real, big-boy Montessori school. And the night before that was Halloween.
Around 4:30 on Halloween day, my anxiety about Joseph starting school and my anxiety about the Halloween Party I had decided to attend combined to produce a scene of me drinking a beer at the kitchen table, confiding in my friend Anaiis all the various pressures I feel and ways I am sure that I am failing to be a good mother. She was a great sport about it, reassuring me for every claim I made about the ways I’m failing, that in fact I am not failing and everything is fine and is going to continue to be fine.
The conversation was kind of like this (with liberal paraphrasing):
Me: I just feel like I have to make sure he has a really fun time at Halloween, so he’ll have good memories about his childhood.
Her: But remember, what it takes for him to have a good time is way less than what it takes for you to have a good time. We’re gonna go outside and he’s gonna be like, “Whoa! Hey! Have you all seen this tree? With the leaves? It’s AMAZING!”
Me: Yea, but I just feel like I have to work extra hard to make sure we’re surrounded by our friends at holidays, so he doesn’t notice that he doesn’t have a dad or a regular family.
Her: I think your life is totally like that already. And honestly, as a kid when my dad wasn’t around I care about it. I was just focused on how to get more of my mom’s attention.
Me: Yea, but… (etc. on and on and on)
For weeks I had been worrying extensively about all the ways I was probably going to somehow screw up this most basic of motherhood rituals. Like we were going to set out trick-or-treating on the wrong night, or at totally the wrong time, or that nobody actually dresses up for Halloween anymore and Joseph would be so embarrassed, or we’d have no-one to hang out with, etc. on and on and on.
Eventually we set out to the Halloween party, after suiting Joseph up in his homemade “Baby Gandalf” costume that I had sewn hastily but well in advance from a grey flannel bed sheet and a ball of wool roving fashioned into a long white beard. He toddled down the alleyway, looking very serious and making us laugh in his floppy wizard hat and grey robe. When we arrived, the neighbor’s yard was full of hip adults drinking beers and kids flaunting their costumes, standing around eating hotdogs and posing for pictures. Without hesitation, Joseph dropped my hand and toddled off into the crowd, being met as usual with exclamations of adoration: Oh, how cute are you!
At one point he picked a Saltine cracker up off the ground and held it up emphatically to a grey-haired man in an apron. The man, whom he’d never met before, understood his wordless communication and obediently bent down and took a bite. This is the sort of world that Joseph lives in, where you can offer a stranger a dirty saltine cracker, and they’ll take a bite just to humor you. If only we were always treated that way.
I didn’t know it when we arrived, but there was a costume contest in the schedule of events and when I asked Anaiis if she thought Joseph should enter she exclaimed, Duh! He was made for this!
So we wrangled him across the lawn to wait with the other bewildered and squirmy children-under-three, and attempted a parade that was so confused the judges had to ask us to do it again. We returned to the sidelines to watch, and as each age category held their own disorganized parade, I had to restrain Joseph from following them back up the ramp to pose in front of the judges again and again and again.
When it was finally time to announce the winners, a voice amplified by a rented PA system said, In the Pre-K category, the winner is….Baby Gandalf!!!
Anaiis cheered and everyone clapped while I carried Joseph to the porch to receive his prize (a box of twisty crayons and a wooden fox) and we stood up there while the announcer called the names of the winners in each age group. I held him on my hip and grinned while we were photographed (Joseph just stared seriously out into the crowd) and then, flushed and beaming, returned to the yard. Joseph immediately resumed his work of searching for Saltines on the ground to feed to his new gray-haired friend. He’s grown accustomed to accolades.
I, on the other hand, was more excited than is strictly acceptable for an adult who has just won the neighborhood Halloween Costume Contest. But I had been acknowledged for something I made. And while I recognize that the homemade Halloween costume is one of the most easily socially sanctioned creative outlets for mothers of young children and comes with a very low set of standards (at least for someone with an almost-lifetime of seamstress-ing and a college degree in visual art), this tangible recognition of my skill as a creative person had me floating.
We trick-or-treated at a few houses on the way home, Joseph toddling up the walkways with his basket in hand and hat askew. Back at our apartment, I put the very sleepy Baby Gandalf to bed, and after Anaiis and I had divided up the candy according to our favorites (mine is Milky Ways and hers is Reese’s Cups) she went home.
Determined not to allow the excitement and glory of winning the costume contest to get in the way of my anxiety and self-doubt, I set out to get ready for Joseph’s first day of school: pacing back and forth across my small apartment collecting items, checking and rechecking my list, writing J.O.H. on everything with a black sharpie, the whole time running through different worst-case scenarios in my head:
What if they won’t let me walk him into the classroom and I have to say goodbye to him while he’s screaming in carline?
What if he thinks I abandoned him?
What if he does everything wrong and all the teachers think he’s a bad kid?
What if all the teachers think I’m a bad mom?
What if I get there and I don’t know what to do?
What if I drop him off and he doesn’t have the right stuff?
As a last step, I wrote his new teacher a long note explaining the situation with Joseph’s dad: that he does not have custody or paternity or permission to pick Joseph up, that he can be identified by his facial tattoos and that if he arrives at school they should notify law enforcement immediately. Then I lay in be reading for a long time, until my brain settled down enough to sleep. In the morning, I raced around getting us breakfast and making coffee and packing lunch and taking a “First Day of School” picture and checking my list for the 37th time. We were ready to leave the house, with shoes on and everything, 20 minutes early which is when I realized I could probably chill out and wash the dishes or something.
I drove the route to the school, a path committed to muscle memory (Joseph is going to the same Montessori school I worked for for multiple years), and rehearsed the steps of drop-off, as though I was going to somehow forget an important step and screw the whole thing up.
We were greeted by familiar faces, and a few new ones. His teacher is a woman named Lyndsey who I worked with in this self-same classroom many months ago, and most of the kids are the same ones I knew then, only taller. When I set his bag of carefully labeled things down, Lyndsey pointed to his nap mat:
Oh, did you make that?
Yea, I did (blushing).
I love that, you’re such a good mom.
Aw, thanks (blushing harder).
The toddlers gathered around Joseph, Oohing and Aahing like everyone always does over him. He’s the youngest student in the class, and they were immediately so enamored with him that Lyndsey had to remind them he might not want to be patted on the head repeatedly, even out of sweetness.
Joseph did not bat a single eyelash. He walked away from me without hesitation, to join his new friends sitting on a low polished wood bench putting on their “inside shoes.” When I finished chatting with Lyndsey and it was time to go, I went to him and reached down, placing my hands over his ears and kissing the crown of his head. He turned to hug me, scrunching up his face and climbing into my lap, but after a good hug he returned with excitement to his new environment and new friends.
There was not a tear shed when I left, and Lyndsey’s mid-morning report was that he was doing just fine and I could get him after lunch. When I arrived he was in the bathroom at the sink with a friend, and when he noticed me observing him he smiled big and said something that translates roughly to, Look what I’m doing! Isn’t this awesome? and then returned to washing his hands mimicking the movements of the older child with heartbreaking gumption. He was in no hurry to leave.
The moral of this story: Every time you think you’re failing terribly, when you think you don’t deserve to be a mother, when you think that everything you do is dull and wrong, you’re probably actually doing great. You’re probably actually doing amazing. You might even be winning. But you are definitely such a good mother.