Before I got pregnant for the first time, I taught in the public school system for eight years, finished grad school, and started a new career in writing and editing. I traveled when the urge struck me, taking off for two weeks at a time to visit places like Ireland and Alaska. I published the occasional short story or essay and harbored dreams of a novel, with my name on it, occupying the shelves of my local Barnes and Noble. At thirty-one, however, the birth of my first daughter sparked a tectonic shift, and I let go of all of the things I thought I wanted, releasing them like Chinese lanterns into the night. By the time I had my second daughter, at thirty-three, I was already wearing motherhood like a comfortable pair of sweatpants.
Now I spend my days and nights thinking about whether my children are happy, whether I am raising them to be well-adjusted teens and adults. I think about whether they are getting the nutrition they need and whether they have enough time to play. I think about getting the laundry done in time for school and how to turn my house into a home that is both loving and beautiful. I take care to cut my girls' sandwiches in a diagonal, just the way they like them. I engage in mental sessions of self-flagellation when I find myself distracted by recipes on Pinterest. Despite yearning to sip my coffee in peace in the mornings, I do my best, as I look upon these hungry, vulnerable little creatures, to twist my face into something open and honest.
I'm as likely now to abandon an ambition as I am to follow through. Seven months after the birth of my second daughter, I ran a marathon. I began training for a second one and stopped running cold turkey right in the middle of it in favor of spending my free time reading books in bed. I intend to get dressed and maintain an acceptable level of personal hygiene, but I work in my pajamas and sometimes skip a shower. A couple of days a week, I might not even make it outside of the house.
After spending my twenties fantasizing about extraordinary experiences and working toward grand accomplishments, I tend to consider my thirties thus far characterized by mediocrity. I no longer spend my evenings and weekends studying. I'm not so quick to volunteer to work the longer hours I used to. Instead I've discovered that I derive a perverse pleasure from producing baked goods. I have to wonder what that says about me. Will I ever, even after the kids are both in school, be ready to write a novel or to even put in the time and concentration required to publish again? Or will I just use my children like talismans against potential failure?
Then again, maybe mediocrity is just a label applied by the vestigial twenty-something still residing somewhere in my consciousness. In my sweatpants and ball cap, at the park, I feel miles from the sexualized images of checkout-line cover girls. But I don't need a low-cut shirt, makeup artist, and air-brushing to advertise my fertility. The two kids I'm chasing around are evidence enough. Like Gaia, the mother goddess of Greek mythology from whom all beings sprang, I have the power, as a woman, to grow life inside of me. Viewed through a different lens, my life takes on a separate hue. My children worship me. It seems like ever since the umbilical connection was severed, they have maintained an attachment via sameness — striving not to be mere approximations of me, but me exactly. Violet, my oldest daughter, with urgency in her voice, tells me that she wants to grow up to be just my height. She wants her hair to turn red, like mine, and she wants to wear all of my clothes. She wants to walk like me and talk like me too.
I am my girls' mediator. I am protective of them in a primal way. Psychically, I anticipate all of their needs. I have forged a happy marriage and communicative partnership with my husband to shield my children from familial instability. If I get the rare weekend away, a chance to lounge poolside and sip on fruity alcoholic beverages, by Sunday it already feels too long.
When considering my two girls, the importance of some of my old aspirations drifts away like the distorted image of a leaf being swept downstream under the surface of the water. Now I have new ambitions: raising my two miraculous girls in the best way I know how and loving them in that fierce way that only a mother can. Now I know that this is not mediocrity at all; instead, like every woman who strives to be a good mother, it's what makes me extraordinary.