I am a mother. I am other things too, of course: a woman, a wife to M, a sister, a daughter, a friend, an American, a Jew, an editor, a reader, a consumer—but ever since my son N was born six years ago, what I am, primarily, is a mother. In the course of an average day I nurse and care for R, our 14-month-old girl, and wage what my mother calls “the battle against entropy.” I wipe little behinds and fold laundry. If I can get dinner cooked, more’s the better. It is not glamorous work, but at its best it is deeply satisfying and joyful. At its worst, it is stupifyingly dull, exhausting, and demoralizing. I try to appreciate the little things: a visit from a friend while the baby naps, a good book and the time to read it, a smile on my son’s face when he gets off the bus in the afternoon.
I am also a writer. It is hard to write at 1:19 a.m., especially with the repetitive melody from the baby’s noise machine coming through the monitor. I am worn out, tired from a day of clashes and truces with a testy first-grader, tired from a day of trips up and down the stairs with a 23-pound baby, tired from a day that begins with one mess and ends with a different one.
Simone de Beauvoir was right: The soiled is made clean; the clean becomes soiled. Again, and again, and again. I feel lucky, though. I can write now because M is cleaning the kitchen. Actually, that’s not quite true—if he weren’t cleaning the kitchen, I’d still be writing, I’d just have a dirty kitchen.
Soon M will go up to bed and the house will be mine. The rest of the day it’s not possible to follow a thought through to its end, to sit still and reflect. Before my children were born, I was a long-range planner—I even had a five-year fold-out calendar insert for my Filofax. (Nothing I wrote down on it has actually come to pass.) Now I live one day at a time, not out of any spiritual practice, but because that’s all I can manage. M doesn’t understand this, doesn’t recognize the woman who greets with genuine surprise the event she has known for weeks was coming.