This is the essay I submitted for my Listen to Your Mother audition in February. It changed very little over the course of rehearsals, but there are always little edits–and slips in the live delivery (which incidentally, I am dying to share with you all once the videos are released!).
We didn’t have a kiddie pool, so we used a roasting pan.
Jay was eighteen months old. It was deep, sticky summer in Back Bay. You know, those still, blinding days when the rowhouses draw the heat down to settle into the brick sidewalks, and the exhaust from the cars on Boylston and Comm Ave is so thick you can hold it in your hands. The condo was blissfully air-conditioned, but we were… stir crazy. I grew up with a woodsy backyard, a stream, a hose, a kiddie pool, one of those sprinklers that fans back and forth, the kind that stings the soles of your feet if you hold them still over the spray too long. These were the hot weather tools in my parenting tool box.
There I was, barely out of college, alone with a pudgy-cheeked cherub who was sick to death of being in the same five climate-controlled rooms, alone with a stumblingly mobile little man who had HAD ENOUGH of his wooden Thomas railway, alone and starting to appreciate Steve, Blue, Mailbox, and Mr. Salt and Mrs. Pepper like a prisoner with Stockholm Syndrome.
Walking was right out. We wouldn’t make it around the block. Those awkward little legs were not interested in the stroller, and I was not interested in sweating for an hour, even in the name of sanity. There was a walled-in terrace out back, on the alley side of the building, but the garbage cans were ripe with heat, and I was convinced in those Frankenstein-style-shambling days that the stone floor would leave his head permanently scarred.
Out front, two small green areas enclosed with wrought iron, each perhaps three-by-six feet, “landscaped” with boxwood hedge and grass. Wait! Grass! … No hose, no sprinkler. … If only we had a tiny pool!
No tiny pool, but there, in the far corner cabinet of the small, garden-level urban-dweller kitchen, was a big roasting pan. Perfect for a 25-pound bird, why not a twenty-five pound kid?
(I know you’re all thinking it: why didn’t I consider the infant tub? I think I know now, but bear with me.)
It took some doing, bringing out the pan, bringing out the water, all while a toddler orbited like a curious little moon, but we made it work.
He was a sight: splashing happily in a roasting pan full of cool water, wearing nothing but his diaper and the drawn-bow smile that stole my heart the first time he offered it to me. The shade of the buildings was welcome; the breeze from passing traffic almost refreshing. In… out… in… out… blades of grass on his feet the way I remember blades of grass on my own feet as a child, dirty rivulets running down his legs and pooling in the gorgeous creases of his baby fat.
I think of that afternoon every time my young son plays in his kiddie pool or runs under the sprinkler on our small, suburban lawn. Because I was not Jay’s mother, but Jay, and the two amazing siblings who followed him into my heart, taught me to BE a mother in the small, silly moments like those.
I never thought of the infant tub because bathtime wasn’t usually part of our day. I packed up my book and my sweater and rode the T home at the end of our days together like Mary Poppins with a messenger bag, and Jay had bathtime and bedtime with his parents.
Jay taught me that motherhood is more than biology, more even than the endless, selfless – and often excruciating – work of days, of weeks, of months, of years, of forever. That sweet, bright little boy wove the thread of his life into the fabric of my heart: a warp and weft of connection and love like nothing I’d yet experienced. His little sister Em left rows of baffled adoration, knits and purls of headstrong, brilliant little girl tears and laughter. His baby brother O, ever the independent soul, undid the seams of my already roomy heart and made a pocket all his own.
Motherhood is the expanded heart. Forever-pockets full of love and unsnappable connection.
To mother children in that way before giving birth to my own son changed my life in ways I feel humbled trying to explain. I know it doesn’t always happen that way. I know being a nanny is not the same as being a mother. I know not every child a nanny cares for takes up residence in the rest of her life.
And yet… I know how precious those children are to me. Being Cam, being me the way I was for them, is never far from my thoughts, never far from my worries and doubts about my own mothering path, never far from the bigger-on-the-inside joy that is being Mama. If that isn’t a true reflection of motherhood, I don’t know what is.
That grinning little boy in the roasting pan who taught me my first lessons in mothering is now a freshman in high school, away at boarding school, and the little boy who made me Mama is in Kindergarten. When I see them together, bookends of my newness to mothering, my chest aches. I can feel the walls of my heart pressing outward, growing and reshaping to accommodate who they are now and who they were in the moments when each of them was the center of my world.
Every cliché about the passage of time passes under my feet like the sting of sprinkler spray, and the children in my heart can only dip their feet in a roasting pan of cool water.
Motherhood is the expanded heart, and mine grows to make room.