Get a Real Job

Get a Real Job

Art Get a Real Job

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Minnesota winters are brutal on stay-at-home mothers with young children. It is so hard to get outside. Slippery sidewalks, slushy roads, kids who take twenty minutes to get bundled up and only then announce, “I have to pee!”

The winter my twins were infants, I felt nearly suffocated by the early darkness, the cold, the isolation. I needed to exercise and to get out of the house. I started taking the twins to the Mall of America. It was a thirty minute drive on a non-snowy day and the mall had four floors, each an entire mile in circumference.

I never shopped, we couldn’t afford anything but diapers and the basic groceries that supplemented our WIC coupons. I walked. The mall was free, warm, and not my house. It had that white noise background that can (sometimes) soothe anxious babies. In the middle of the day it was filled with two kinds of people: other stay at home moms who were empathetic and equally desperate, and elderly people also out for a non-slippery walk. The elderly were my favorite because they loved seeing infant twins. Their comments and smiles would remind me, in the haze of those sleepless months, that my children were precious and cute and treasures.

So we walked. My double stroller that was so hard to manoeuver and my massive diaper bag that knocked into other walkers and my weary spirit, thankful for a few hours out of the house, pretending we were real people with money to spend and friends to meet and not just a mom and two babies hoping to make it through another day.

One of the best things about the Mall of America was the nursing mother’s room at Nordstrom’s. I could time my walk to end up there just at feeding time and we would wander through the beautiful clothes to the bathroom.

Inside this bathroom were several beige couches, big clean mirrors, flowers, calming music piped in, a changing table, and privacy and quiet where my babies could eat in peace. I could rest one in my lap and prop one up on the couch pillows, much easier than trying to accomplish feeding both on a mall bench or fast food restaurant plastic chair.

One day, while in the nursing room, a woman came in. She looked to be in her upper sixties. She wore a raggedy faux-fur coat, a pearl necklace, and hot pink lipstick that had smeared outside the lines and snagged on dried skin on her lips. Her hair was ashy blond with streaks of gray, dry and cracking at the ends. She walked briskly past us, into the bathroom part of the room.

There was a phone on the table next to me and when she came back out, she picked up the phone. There wasn’t a dial tone and she slammed it down.

My babies jerked their bodies at the sound but continued eating.

She picked up the phone again, yelled into it, and slammed it down again. She turned and glared at me. I offered a half-smile, hoping it came across as neutral or sympathetic. She started at the babies, my stroller, the diaper bag, back at my face.

“Get a real job,” she shouted, and then she ran out the door.

Her words echoed in the nursing mother’s room. Get a real job. Get a real job.

I’d had a real job, before these babies were born. I had a university degree, albeit a fairly useless one for earning a decent salary. I was twenty-two years old. I had ambition, albeit on hold for now. Was strolling through the Mall of America on a crisp winter day not enough?

I looked at my babies. They were done now and needed to be burped, needed their diapers changed.

Day care for infant twins cost almost more than I could earn at all the real jobs I’d had or applied for and qualified for. Already, I struggled to get through the day and to keep my family clean, clothed, and fed – both financially and physically. Maybe a real job would be in my future, maybe when I slept more than two hours straight at night, I could be useful in a real job. Maybe I was wasting my skills or time and they would be better spent at a real job. Maybe…

I stopped myself. Real job?

What could be more real than keeping two human beings healthy and loved? No one paid me for it but that didn’t make it less of a job. I would have different jobs in the future, I know that now, fifteen years later, but they haven’t felt any more real than those early parenting years. The opposite of real would be fake or imagined and I certainly wasn’t faking. The stretch marks, c-section scar, sleepless nights, breast milk stained shirts, Bob the Builder lyrics running through my head ad nauseum, endless rounds of patty-cake, I imagined none of it.

When both babies started crying at the same time and I still had to clean up burp rags and dirty diapers and settle them into the stroller, I knew. This was as real as jobs get and I didn’t want a different one.


Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.



The Anxiety Express

The Anxiety Express

WO Anxiety Express ARTBy Jennifer Magnuson

I am an anxious mother. Whether it was born from choosing to have five children or brews organically in my slightly imbalanced brain, I am at times unable to turn off the switch that prevents rational concern from erupting into full-blown panic. I firmly hold truck with the theory that once parents are entrenched in the teen years, a prescription for Xanax should automatically be doled out at the next check-up, much like the AARP cards that arrive in the mail when you are still in your forties, thank-you-very-much.

This holiday season my husband and I decided to travel with our three youngest kids to a small town in Oregon to ride The Polar Express. The prospect of riding an actual train to the North Pole has propelled our five and eight year-old boys into paroxysms of glee.

On the drive to the station, our twelve-year-old, whom we had hoped held one more season of Santa-driven spirit, sulks in the back row of the car, escaping as best he can through earbuds delivering steady zaps and whirs of skrillex music to drown out the uncool chattering of his little brothers. With two older teenagers under our belts, we should have known better. The first year of middle school brings a special brand of pained self-awareness; his only words uttered during the two hour drive are, “Do not tag me on Instagram.”

Still, we are fools this time of year, going through the motions with the optimistic amnesia of parents who forget that each December 26 heralds vows of escaping to Hawaii next year, we really mean it this time.

Our drive through the Columbia River Gorge is punctuated with rabidly excited squeaks and inquiries of are we there yet along with an occasional sigh, exaggerated in its loudness so that we might know the angst carried with each exhalation. It isn’t until the torrential rains pick up, the kind that whip a large SUV around bendy turns, that I regret not packing any anti-anxiety meds. We white-knuckle our way through sheets of rain into the town of Hood River, where our family time is to begin. My breath is shallow at this point.

With an hour to kill before boarding, my husband Bob wisely suggests we cool our heels at a nearby pizza joint so the kids can get something to eat, and I, a glass of wine. The man is keenly attuned to my anxiety levels — if only out of self-preservation. At the mention of wine, my breathing slows.

The pizza parlor is packed with locals and visiting families; children in pajamas and Santa caps spill from booths while beleaguered-looking parents stare into their phones. The air crackles with frenetic energy, and my younger boys happily join their brethren. They race to the back of the restaurant, loud with the trills and clangs of coins being plunked into video games and glass-encased claws for a chance to win a piece of plastic that will be promptly thrown away even though it cost eleven dollars in quarters to win. It smells like pepperoni and stale socks. I tell Bob to hustle with my wine.

Despite the warm zinfandel, my tension levels are rising. It is now evident to me that everyone in this restaurant is conspiring to tap into my biggest phobias to see if I will fall off the edge before we even get to the station. To my right, a toddler is licking pizza sauce from a tabletop. I shudder, down the rest of my wine, and avert my gaze. A young girl is army-crawling underneath a booth; I force a smile and imagine the floors are extra clean. A small boy runs past our table, bouncing a trachea-sized rubber ball. I mentally brush up on my Heimlich techniques and tell the kids to finish eating their pizza (but take small bites and chew slowly, please).

Finally, the moment arrives and we are seated in the train car. My shoulders relax slightly as I listen to my boys exclaim, “It looks exactly like the real Polar Express!” They are quite literally bouncing in their seats, clutching their golden ticket as they wait for the conductor to punch their initials, just like the movie!

The train jolts to a start, and my heart rate climbs. A tinny announcement comes on, welcoming us to the Polaaaaaar Express! My youngest claps his hands. The oldest has reinserted his earbuds. As the train car rocks gently from side to side I ask my husband if this is normal. I am used to the smooth rides of city metros or the speed trains from our experiences living overseas. He shrugs, “Sure.”

I wipe the thick condensation off my window and look out to see that the Hood River, which feeds into the Columbia, is white-capped and swollen. The water is so high it is swirling past trees and from my perch looks to be nearly level with the train tracks. I regret not having a second glass of wine.

Teenagers in old-timey waiter costumes walk down the aisles unsteady while dispensing watery cocoa and little brown cookies. I notice with satisfaction that they are at least wearing gloves. We are definitely rocking back and forth, and I try to subtly find the emergency exits. My husband, of course, notices and places his hand on my leg. Christmas music plays, and the train car erupts in a discordant version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

I hear what is obviously an axel breaking. Everyone is oblivious to our imminent doom and continues singing. Then, the train stops, and my heart with it. “Uh oh!” says the announcer. “Looks like we will have to stop the train…” So this is how I will die. Somewhere in the Hood River Valley, trapped in a train car. Our teenagers will be orphaned and brotherless, and probably forget to erect a memorial in my honor. “Our conductor needs to scare some caribou off the tracks.” At this, my boys gasp again and sputter, “This happened in the movie!”

Of course. I knew that. I have seen The Polar Express seventy-four times. I may have to remind my doctor to adjust my milligram dosage when we get home, because even though I may know this, my nerves are now drawn tighter than Snookie’s cornrows on a Mexican vacation.

Another costumed waiter comes by to pick up the trash, and she taps my youngest on the nose with her finger, making a little boop! sound as she does it twice more. My oldest son can also read me like a set of Minecraft cheat codes and picks up on my annoyance. “It’s okay, mom,” he says. “She’s doing that to all the kids, not just Henry.”

All the kids? I mentally tally the possible number of head colds on the train and try and lower my shoulders while practicing a yoga breath.

The car fills with noise; Santa is finally here. When he gets to our seats, he sits down next to my youngest, who is so awestruck he simply looks up at Santa and mumbles, “Ninjago” when asked what he wants for Christmas. My son’s wide-eyed expression, coupled with his fresh crew-cut is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Santa makes his way through the train car and I look at my oldest, who is busy on his phone. I lean a little closer and see that he has snapped a picture of Henry gazing up at Santa with adoration. It is the perfect picture. I try and act cool when I see that he is posting it to his Instagram. My heart swells; I’m okay now. I’ve got this.

Next year, Hawaii for sure.

Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson is the author of Peanut Butter and Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East.

Everything New is Old Again

Everything New is Old Again

By Alison B. Hart

WO Everything Old is New Again ArtWhen my daughter was 9 months old, my old friend came to town to meet her. Like me, he was nearing 40. I had bought an apartment, married, and had a baby in quick succession. He was single and ambitious and wondering when he might start a family of his own. To a certain extent we were both late bloomers, but that was hard to tell in New York, a city custom-built for extended adolescence.

On the last day of his trip, we had some time before he needed to leave for the airport, so we walked through Brooklyn while the baby slept. It was a sunny day in winter and I was enjoying being out and social, just strolling down the street on a Sunday afternoon, listening to my old friend talk in unhurried, uninterrupted sentences.

“Babies are nice,” he sighed.

I agreed.

“You make it look so fulfilling. I’m tempted to get one of my own.”

“You should. You’d be a great dad.”

But I knew he wasn’t seeing the whole truth of my life, that this was a picture-postcard moment due in large part to our reunion and the baby’s slumber.

We passed a bar on Smith Street and the sweet stink of beer enveloped us.

“What on earth?” I stammered. “It’s 2:00!”

I’d been up for what seemed like days already, but I was aware that most people had just finished breakfast. So many responsibilities loomed ahead that would require my active concentration: dinner, bath, bedtime stories, extracting myself from the baby’s room before Mad Men came on. Surely, other people also had things they wanted to accomplish? It was much too early in the day to jettison all my plans by getting tipsy.

My friend just smiled. “Oh, honey,” he said. He might as well have patted me on the head.

And suddenly I was transported back to my twenties, when he and I first arrived in New York. At 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon back then, I was either at a bar, on my way to a bar, or sweating through a soccer game after which I would lug my sweaty gear to a bar with my teammates. Bars were what weekends were made for.

What I would have given right then, all those years later with my daughter’s nap almost over, for a cold one and some hot wings and no particular place to be.

Then it hit me: this was another case of good old-fashioned nostalgia.

I had a lot of hit-and-runs with nostalgia in the days and weeks after my daughter was born. Whenever I encountered people doing things that seemed virtually impossible for me to do with a child, I remembered the freedom I once had to do whatever I pleased. I could sleep until 10:00 on a Saturday. Hell, I could sleep all day. Before I had a baby to get home to, I could make last-minute plans after work: to see a show or play a game of pick-up or get dinner with a friend who needed to talk. I could get that third drink at the bar without a thought to the cascade of events it might touch off—more drinking, possible loss of wallet in bar or cab, killer hangover the next day. Before I was a mom, I was free to make an ass of myself or waste time or both.

But it didn’t feel like freedom back then. Mostly the options that were available to me when I was younger felt like the wrong options. In my twenties, I wanted stability. It was hard to enjoy myself properly when I was running up credit card balances I couldn’t pay off. In my thirties, still single and living alone, I wanted a life. I could go out for tacos 3 nights in a row (and often did), but only because I didn’t have anyone else’s tastes to consult. I would far rather have been in a relationship and stayed in for the night, preferably with someone who could teach me the difference between red wine vinaigrette and red wine vinegar. When my friends started having babies, I felt left behind. Freedom was lonely.

And what was so great about it anyway? I didn’t want to sow my oats; I’d had plenty of time for that already. When I met my husband in our mid-thirties, the fact that he was Marriage Material (genuinely kind, in possession of and familiar with the deployment of household cleaning products) was a development that thrilled, not spooked, me. Still, we took things slowly at first. We kept separate apartments for 3 years, resisting the pressures of the market to move in together and save money. I took a solo vacation to Barcelona, because I’d never traveled abroad alone and wanted to prove to myself that I could. He built a flotilla of rafts to ride down the Mississippi River with his friends, and gave serious consideration to joining the circus.

Maybe freedom was as simple as wanting to leave room in life for the unexpected. It was easy, even logical, to defer certain responsibilities and take our time pursuing our interests. It may not be like this in every city, but in Brooklyn, New York, waiting until you are 37 to start a family is as natural as riding a bike, growing a beard, and keeping bees on your rooftop.

I was ready to become a mom when I did. But sometimes I missed my old life. I felt so blessed, but also overwhelmed. In fleeting moments that first year, the awesome responsibility of being my daughter’s entire world knocked the wind out of me. When my friend left for the airport, I missed him, and I missed the me that used to be.

Not long after his visit, while my daughter played peekaboo with her grandparents on Skype, I told them that I was thinking about nostalgia.

“What are you nostalgic about?” my parents asked.

“The time before she was born,” I said.

They both let out deep belly laughs, as only people of their generation can laugh at people of mine, even across technology they understand only minimally.

“But you just got started! You’ve got 35 years to go!”

They were right, of course. Intellectually I knew this.

Then a funny thing happened. Spring approached and, with it, my daughter’s first birthday. I don’t know if it was the seasons changing or the days getting longer, but now all I could remember about that chaotic, upside-down year was the week she was born. I remembered how tiny she was—on my chest, nursing for the first time; in the hospital bassinet, staring back at us with giant blue pools for eyes; asleep in my husband’s arms. I remembered how crazy it felt to have a baby in the car seat next to me on the ride home. The car seat itself seemed ludicrous, perhaps even stolen. It used to blow my mind when she fell asleep: to think that there were three, not two, of us in the apartment. Three heartbeats.

Even the hard times were transmuted by memory into something magical. Sure, those first few weeks were a riot of panic and exhaustion. And, yes, my body felt like it had been through a war. I barely left the house except for pediatrician appointments. But every single second was a complete surprise! I couldn’t appreciate it at the time. Not since my own childhood had so much been so new.

Looking back one year later, my vantage point lifted and tossed around by a rogue wave of nostalgia, I was awestruck by the adventure. All the mundane things—changing a diaper, shopping for rice cakes, commuting home from midtown—now felt incredibly special.

For days I felt tingly and alive just crossing the road. It was like that line in Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-one Love Poems”: Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty / my limbs streaming with purer joy?

I did not.

But why not? Why hadn’t I enjoyed what I had when I had it?

I don’t know. I wish I had, but it’s an impossible wish in any case.

The older I get, the more I suspect that wholeness isn’t a feeling that hits us all at once but something more like a long meal whose courses are spread out over years. You start with the hunger of youth. Savor the confusion of the lost years that follow. Pore over the delicacies that you can’t afford. Accept a bite off a rich friend’s plate. Drink a little, maybe too much. Expand in all directions. After some conversation and digestion, order more, this time maybe something to share.

For some of us, at least, maybe nostalgia isn’t a distraction from the present but a necessary experience of it. We get a second chance to appreciate now what we couldn’t the first time. Even when tinged darkly with regret or envy, nostalgia offers a path back to the pleasures hiding beneath. And when it’s connected to life’s purer joys—a long walk with an old friend, a sleeping infant, or a first birthday—we can be reborn.

We had a small party at home on the day my daughter turned 1. Her grandparents came, as well as a few friends and their children. It was still too cold to go outside, so after we stuffed ourselves with cake, we broke apart into predictable groupings. The men talked politics with the grandparents, the kids built towers around the baby, and the women snuck seconds (okay, thirds) in the kitchen. I told my girlfriends about the excitement I’d experienced over the last few days, reliving the birth of my daughter.

“Did it happen to you, too?” I asked.

Yes, they said, they were pretty sure it did.

“Will it happen every year?” I asked.

That part they weren’t so sure about. They couldn’t exactly remember. What parent can remember, years later, which solid food came second or which month the third tooth came in? Eventually rhythms establish themselves, and experiences come to us and flutter away, like the pages of a calendar, turning quickly.

The next year, I waited for it to happen again. There’d been many new developments in my daughter’s second year: walking, talking, talking a lot and in great detail. You could say she was bossing us around by that point, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But the newness of her was not something I registered anymore. The fact of our family was a given I’d long since accepted. I sat at the window in her bedroom, where I’d nursed so many days and nights but no longer did, and I looked out at the trees just beginning to bud and the quality of the sunlight altering. I waited for that tingly, just-fell-in-love feeling to take me. But it didn’t happen. I was in love already, had been for years. And I had been here before, on this block of Brooklyn, in this week of March, a mother remembering.

Alison B. Hart’s work has appeared in The Missouri Review and online for USA Today, HBO, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is the co-founder of the reading series at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn and holds an MFA from The New School. She is currently at work on a novel-in-stories.

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