By Rebecca Kerr
There are things I don’t let them see: the times when my face won’t hold its shape the way I want, the ugly words that bubble out when I’m angry at myself and everything else that fails. I try to hide it in my bedroom, behind my cheap, white door with the blue marker circles all over. I bury myself in the work piled up on my desk. And when I have to face them after all, I pretend I’m strong. “I’m fine. Let’s go to the park.”
My older daughters help me put pants on the toddler again. He’s been half naked since he turned two and decided the potty was okay, but clothing was not. They find his shoes and socks, where he left them in a weedy corner of the yard. My youngest daughter wants to eat waffles before we leave, so the oldest makes her one to take along. I am standing by the front door, waiting. Or sitting down to check another email, while they do the fifteen-minute loading dance that happens every time we try to leave.
Other mothers have their children dressed and ready by 9:00 a.m. Other mothers know where the clean laundry went. But it’s better not to think about those things.
It’s mostly quiet as we drive along 183. The oldest four know that Mommy is not entirely on board with this idea of going out. They know, but don’t mention anything. They just sit in this uneasy silence, looking sideways at the windows and one another. The youngest two don’t care that everyone seems quiet. They ask questions about license plates and make up songs about fighting bad guys, and I only ask them to please not shriek, but singing is fine, “I love it. That’s a beautiful song,” and tune out again.
I forget to turn at Cypress Creek. My son reminds me after we pass by. He does it gently, like a question, “Which park are we going to?… Oh, isn’t it that way?”
I try to laugh at myself and my spotty attention span, but it comes off wrong. They laugh with me anyway. Then they go quiet again, because they know it isn’t real.
This is the wall you hit when your kids grow older. They see you. They notice the red-rimmed eyes and the long trips to the bedroom to cry away the frustration.
Younger kids see things, too, but when they get to be seven or eight or more, you know that they memorize every clipped syllable, never miss a single false chuckle. And instead of calling you on your crap, they show mercy. They sweep it right back under the rug.
It’s worse than being called out, because you can keep hiding, in total denial. Part of you willingly buys the idea that you’re conning them with this strong mommy mask. But at moments like this, you know.
It’s the thickness of the silence in the car, while the little ones chatter away, and the store fronts and brittle trees pass on slowly down the road. And you realize that your son hasn’t mentioned the fact that we were supposed to renew his Lego subscription today. Your daughters only speak to each other in whispers, especially if they’re arguing over something small, and when they work up the courage to ask, “Are we planning to go to practice tonight?” they do it in this small, placid voice, as if you might break under one more request for carpooling or last-minute shopping.
And this is the last thing you want for your children. It’s absurd and wrong that they feel the need to tiptoe around you like peasants in the court of a mad king. So you overcompensate, “Of course! We’ll go early and have dinner on the way.” And this encourages your son, who was holding back his, “Can I go to the library on Sunday?” And you grant that too, because it’s reasonable and right, and a little voice crops up in the back of your head saying you have three new deadlines to meet by Monday, and you haven’t gone to bed before 3:00 a.m. in days, and you already fell apart over a broken coffee cup this morning, and how are you supposed to babysit for your friend like you promised last week—and you push all of those thoughts down, because somehow you’ll get it all done, always do, just don’t know how, not yet…
We climb out of the car in the empty parking lot, and I barely get the toddler onto the curb before he takes off running for the slide with everyone else. Except my oldest daughter hangs back with me. She’s walking close beside me, saying nothing. I put my arm around her shoulders, because I want her to see I’m okay.
She puts on this brief little smile. But it isn’t real. It’s just her way of acknowledging the effort. So I take her hand and walk with her, and forget all of my lines, at least for now.
Rebecca Kerr works at home with her kids in Austin. She writes all day for her clients, so she can work on her own stories at night. This year Rebecca is a featured poet at Winter Tangerine’s Summer Reading series at Poets House in NYC.