When my boys were little, just 4 years old and 6 months, they attended a small childcare center about 1/4 mile from my office. I was guilt-ridden about working and not being with them during the day (but I didn't have the option to stay home with them). Tough days even now, to remember. I can still feel the pain in my heart of dropping them off each morning, and the tingle in my nose and my cheeks as I choked back the tears in defiance of the advice, "It will get easier, trust me." It doesn't get easier. Trust me.
I didn't take a single vacation day for three years. Instead, I spent all of my leave time taking longer lunches to visit them during the day. Sometimes I would get there at nap time and be able to lay on the mat in the nursery room floor with my 4 year old and rub his back until he fell asleep. Sometimes, I got there in time for lunch, and I would get to squeeze into one of those teeny-tiny preschool seats and enjoy a string cheese or a GoGurt. But it was never enough time. I always had to leave again. Every interaction was in anticipation of the leaving.
But the two memories that I can't escape are these.
1. For the fall festival during their first year at daycare, I volunteered to make a zucchini bread and an apple pie. I bought all of the ingredients on our way home the evening before the festival. By the time the babies were fed, bathed, read to, and tucked in, it was already late. I had some work to finish up, so I did that too. I didn't get started on my baking until close to 9:30 PM. I pulled out the recipes and started making my pie crust (from scratch), sliced the apples, and prepped the pie filling. It wasn't until then that I realized that I had no rolling pin or counter space to roll out the dough. So, I spread out some wax paper on the linoleum floor in my miniature kitchen and grabbed a bottle of olive oil. I turned the cap on tight, and started rolling out the crust. Sitting on the floor, with an olive oil bottle, wax paper, and my homemade pie crust.
I got that in the oven, and set to work on the zucchini bread, and realized all too quickly that I didn't have a shredder. So, I sat back down on the floor and started shredding three cups of zucchini with a paring knife. It was late, or rather early morning, by the time I got that in the oven, the kitchen cleaned, and into bed. I was satisfied. My children would know how much I loved them because of how hard I worked on these homemade delicacies from my imperfect, ill-equipped, kitchen.
We got to fall festival and I proudly entered with my beautiful, homemade desserts. I approached the table, behind another mom, just as she dropped two giant bags of Wendy's cheeseburgers on the table in front of me, and proclaimed, "The drive thru is the best! I only spent $20 and I got 20 cheeseburgers, my kitchen is still clean, and I'm not late. Phew, best investment I ever made."
I still don't think I have recovered from that experience. Watching that lazy pile of cheeseburgers disappear into greedy hands and happy mouths, while I stood there beside my untouched monuments to maternal effort. Seriously, wouldn't you rather have a Wendy's cheeseburger than a slice of zucchini bread? I just wanted my boys to know I was trying. I wanted my effort to be visible, unmatched, and demonstrative of my commitment to my children who I sensed I was failing daily. In that life where I could never find balance. For whom was I doing this? For them or for me? What would have happened if I had never rolled out that pie crust on my floor with a bottle of olive oil? Probably nothing. Surely nothing. The world would have continued to spin, whipping my maternal guilt around with it and my children's happiness would have been no greater and no less. So the question remains, "For whom do we try?" How does our hope mingle with effort, as we try to manufacture the outcome we so desperately want?
2. Here's another memory I can't seem to shake. Same apartment. Boys are slightly older by a few months and it's our first Christmas together. I was broke (both in the financial sense and the spiritual sense), but Christmas was on our doorstep and time waits for no man. Driving home on an evening in December, I pulled into a lot to buy a tree. We picked it out together, me carrying my younger son who was certainly big enough to walk (but reluctant to do so), and holding my older son's hand. We strolled through the rows of trees on display and settled on one that was a suitable size for our apartment and our lifestyle. It cost $15.
We tied it to the roof of my Subaru and when we got home, I cut it off and carried it all the way upstairs to our second floor apartment. All by myself. And you know what, I can still feel that tree in my hand. And that feeling of doing something for the sole purpose of creating happiness for someone else just flooding over me. And the amount of effort I poured into creating the illusion of prosperity for my boys, all revolving around that fifteen dollar Charlie Brown tree and the snowflakes we cut out of typing paper and taped to the windows. What other mother hasn't done these things? The endless effort fueled by the hope that others will know they are loved.
Effort, hope, and love. They can't be untangled. And when I think about my husband, and my big kids and my little kids, and my family, I think that is all there is to say. It's not perfect, but with a generous dose of effort, and inextinguishable hope, love will always find its way.