What I'm Doing Now

Hi friends,

First, a big thanks for reading my words. It means more than you know.

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything here. My kids are getting older (6 and 2!) and are now both in school for the first time. Most days I have several hours of not thinking about the care and feeding of children. Crazy! It’s a transition I knew was coming and was looking forward to, but has taken some getting used to nonetheless. Part of that has been working to figure out what “work” looks like for me.

I think I’ve figured it out.

I have a fledgling instagram account (@theworkbooks) and a brand-new newsletter that launches this Friday. I’ll be sending out weekly essays on creativity, art, and writing. Basically, the things I think about when I’m not doling out snacks and applying bandaids. I’d be delighted if you joined me in these new spaces.

Thank you so much for your support.

xoxo,

Julia

006

My family— my husband, our two boys, and me— spent last weekend at the beach. I hesitate to call it a vacation, because there’s no such thing when you’re traveling with small children. We were merely parenting in a different locale, albeit with more family time and slightly more relaxed expectations. I find traveling with kids infinitely more exhausting than simply staying at home— everything is harder in un-child-proofed spaces, and when out of a predictable daily routine. At one point, when both of the boys were running towards the waves and my husband and I just wanted to stay in our beach chairs under the umbrella, I remarked that next time we’d coming to the beach without them. But regardless of how relaxing or not it is, it’s nice to get away, to have a change of scenery, to mix things up a bit. 

For “vacations” we typically head to Port Aransas, a small town on the Texas coast that my husband grew up vacationing in. The beach itself is nothing to get excited about— this is the Gulf of Mexico, after all. But the town is charming and family friendly, and about a 4-hour drive from Austin. So we keep going back. 

This time we stayed at Cinnamon Shore, a newer development on the edge of Mustang Island. It is exceptionally bougie— pastel colored houses in the million dollar range, and multiple salt water pools, including one with a cafe where you can order french fries and margaritas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In the evenings, they show movies on the Great Lawn, set up DIY s’mores by the fire pit. Everyone drives around in golf carts ($140/day), and for $35/day, the resort will set up an umbrella and two chairs for you on the beach. Their (trademarked) slogan is “Welcome to a Simpler Way of Life.” I am unsure if they are saying this with any amount of self-awareness. 

It is the Disney World of the Texas Coast, and I enjoy it for the same reason I enjoy Disney World, because it demands you accept this reality, sanitized and atheistically pleasing, and forget what your life is actually like, crumbs on the floor and piles of laundry and no one around, for miles, to bring you a cold drink.

We hadn’t been down to the coast in exactly a year (normally we try to squeeze in at least 2 long weekends in a calendar year), largely because the day after we came back last year, we closed on our current house, a 1960s ranch on a large lot in a quiet, established neighborhood. We spent the rest of last summer and fall having it remodeled before moving in over Thanksgiving. It turns out that remodeling a house is time consuming, even when you’re not doing the work yourself, and, of course, expensive.  

But at the coast we were fortunate to have great weather, and both of the boys enjoyed the aquarium in nearby Corpus Christi.  The toddler adores ducks, and was delighted to see one taking a bath in the first 5 minutes of our visit, while my oldest excitedly kept an eye out for Kai, a dolphin he remembered from previous visits. At Cinnamon Shore we cycled between the pools and the beach, and there was a lot of sand and reapplication of sunscreen, and too many episodes of Paw Patrol. I read an entire book in maybe 24 hours, so the trip was far from a bust, at least from my perspective. 

On our last morning, while my husband finally succumbed to the toddler’s repeated requests for “Melmo” and downloaded an episode of Sesame Street  (about a baby bird, natch) to his laptop since it was not available “on demand” on the cable box, he called my attention to an injured bird on the sidewalk below our balcony. 

I’m not an ornithologist, but it looked like a dove, not a baby but not an adult, either. A juvenile. It could move around a bit but was obviously unable to fly. Nearby were two adult doves, one (the father, I assumed) perching on the half-wall surrounding the patio of a ground-floor unit below us, while another, obviously the mother, pecked around nervously on the ground nearest the bird. We had come in mid-tragedy, without any knowledge of how or why the accident happened. Maybe there had never been an accident— what if the bird had never been able to fly, and his parents finally pushed him out? I wondered how the parents felt, knowing something was wrong but not being able to do anything about it. I thought about how many times I have identified an issue, an area of concern, a problem, with one of my children, and not had any actionable way to correct it, to have to accept that the only thing to do is wait, and pray they grow out of it, hope for a miracle. I could feel the mama bird’s anxiety rising the way mine does, heart hammering in my chest, face flushing, the urge to pace, and putter, without actually going anywhere or accomplishing anything other than feeding my anxiety. 

At eye level a few feet from our balcony, in the green fronds of a palm tree, was a tidy nest with one perfectly white, perfectly round, egg. The nest appeared to me to be abandoned; perhaps the egg hadn’t hatched. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you think they will, the way you want them. 

“That nest is obviously too small,” my husband said, with a little bit of judgement to the daddy bird, wherever he was, who had failed to provide his family with an adequately sized nest, one that would keep them all safe and comfortable. A practical misstep that could have easily been prevented, with more money, time, or attention to detail. 

“You don’t even know that it’s their nest,” I replied. After all, there is more than one type of bird, and they all have babies. There was nothing except proximity to tie this nest to the trio of birds below us. Sometimes nature is a series of questions that aren’t immediately answered. Whose home is this? Why did it happen this way?

A little while later, we headed down to the beach, and passed the injured bird on our way to the golf cart we would drive over the wooden boardwalk over the dunes, to the beach, where, just on the horizon line, I would count 5 oil rigs. Far enough away to be easily ignored. The bird’s parents were nowhere around now, perhaps they had flown off. I could see the bird’s chest rising and falling gently.

Some friends of ours happened to be at the coast the same weekend we were, and we met up with them on the beach. Those few hours actually felt like a vacation; the five kids played well together, which freed the adults up for day drinking, and conversations that did not revolve around screen time and snacks. 

Later, when we returned to our room, covered in sand and smeared with sunscreen, the bird was dead, and covered with ants. “Nature is cruel,” my husband remarked, and I agreed. What could we have done to prevent this?

We came home on Monday. The house was cleaner than it has ever been; I had a cleaning company do a deep clean while we were gone. It is Wednesday now and already there is a load of laundry on the other end of the dining table, mocking me while I write (Isn’t folding laundry a better use of your time? No one’s gonna read this anyway, sneers my inner critic). A pile of stuffed animals on the floor while I type this. Nothing stays for long. 

My 5-year-old is out of preschool for the month of June, he has some day camps lined up but I also wanted him to have some time off for us to go on little adventures, a decision I am, two days in, regretting a little bit. We’re trying to stay busy; this morning I went to barre, dropping both boys off in the play lounge while I moved up an inch, down an inch, then trekked to Target, for diapers and dark chocolate and squeeze pouches and granola bars. While there I ran into two friends, separately, each dressed in athleisure, as I was, and each with at least one of their children. After I spent $200 even though my list was three things, I took my children to Chick-fil-A for lunch, another decision I regretted since it was crowded and my 5-year-old insisted we eat there, rather than going through the drive-thru. Once home, the toddler went for a nap and the big kid got screen time; I made another cup of coffee and forgot to eat lunch myself. Later, we will run an errand and go to the public library, and I will feed them dinner at 5 and send them off to bed.

I am aware that this is a particular season, and I am trying to “lean into it” or whatever. By mid-August, both of my children will be in school until 3 pm each day, a transition that I hope will bring me actual writing time for the first time in many years, hours to explore the terrain in my own head, a chance to have a career, maybe, now that I know what I want to do with my life, finally, at almost 35. 

But this transition comes, I know, with new schedules and routines to master, and a half dozen problems to solve that I can’t even fathom right now, to say nothing of the greater anxieties that come with letting both of my baby birds leave the nest. At the same time.  

I want to lean it but it’s hard, because what is here, really, if not abbreviated conversations with friends, and forgetting to take care of yourself, even if you would swear up and down that yes, you deserve more than coffee and almond milk creamer and your toddler’s leftover chicken nuggets for lunch. Also no matter what I do, however many times I say “yes, you can have another cookie/ watch more YouTube/ wrestle your brother to the ground,” it’s never enough, and there will always be tears, and frustration, from all three of us. 

Nature is cruel, and I’m not sure there’s anything I could have done to prevent this.

005

the longest year

A few weekends ago my husband took our oldest out to his parents’ house for the weekend. There was a big party being thrown for my husband’s uncle’s 75th birthday, and while the baby probably would have enjoyed himself, it conflicted with his (absurdly early) bedtime. So they took off while the baby and I held down the fort at home.

It was very, very quiet.

Even though my 4 year old can be a bit of a circus for me, he does provide a great deal of entertainment for his extroverted baby brother, so I knew we’d have to get out of the house for at least a small errand after the baby’s afternoon nap.

We had a wander through Whole Foods, where I picked up some supplements to add to my smoothies and some fancy cheese to eat for dinner because I had recently stopped breastfeeding and wow, I have really missed cheese.

At the check out the cashier was doing the standard, “oh he’s so cute, how old?” And after I answered, “Thanks, he’s 11 months,” she replied, “And hasn’t it been the fastest 11 months of your life?”

Here’s what I should have said:

“Of course! The days are long but the years are short.”

or

“Yea, seems like just yesterday I held him for the first time!”

But instead I said:

“No.”

My answer hung in the air; I imagined it bobbing along, like the black balloon in the scene from A Little Princess (1995) where Sara learns her father has died.

I felt like a jerk, of course, for bringing the conversation crashing down, as I often do, by saying the “wrong” thing, which is maybe a problem most writers have. I am very fond of the delete key (I used it at least 3 times typing this sentence), and unfortunately it doesn’t exist in conversation.

I wanted to qualify my response by saying something, anything: “I have a 4 year old, too,” or “There hasn’t been a lot of sleep,” etc. But the words got caught in my throat, and she finished bagging my groceries, and wished us a good weekend, and I left, and she probably thinks I’m a sour puss.

She might be right.

Because the days are long but my god, this year has been long, too. I am desperate for a new season. One in which the baby’s world does not depend on me, one in which I might find more space to write. One in which my body has time to heal, and rest, and belong only to me.

Is that something I should gloss over?

I can love being a mother, enjoy having a baby, without trying, or even wanting to try, to find magic and delight in all of the truly hard parts.

15 minutes is a very, very long time when your newborn is screaming in discomfort because you’ve yet to put 2 + 2 together and realize he has a dairy sensitivity. There are no hours longer than those between 2 and 5 am, and I saw many of them. Intrusive thoughts are deeply upsetting, your brain becoming your enemy, and my postpartum anxiety seemed to grow along with my baby, at an alarming rate.

I spent a lot of time over the last 12 months keeping my eye on the prize of the next milestone, only to have them happen differently than I would have liked (i.e., we spent $500 on a sleep consultant to get him sleeping through the night and on a regular nap schedule; I stopped breastfeeding at 10.5 months due to severe nipple trauma, a story which will surely be recounted here in all of its bloody glory). I didn’t necessarily want to rush through the first year of my baby’s life, and yet, here I am.

The baby is still what I would call high needs now, at a year old. He prefers to be held on my hip, squawking and hiking his legs up higher if he senses I’m about to put him down. I bought more bottle nipples, and washed them, only to have them refused because they are not exactly like the nipples we have, which, by the way, are no longer sold, best I can tell. He will play by himself for approximately 5 minutes, and then he would like for you to sit next to him while he gnaws on a Duplo or bangs a hammer into his ball drop.

Unrelated to parenting and nipple drama, in the past year I have also said goodbye to my paternal grandfather and learned of an old friend’s suicide. Not to mention the general dumpster fire that is our country.

It’s just a lot.

I am aiming for a gold medal in self-care: washing my face, trying to drink more water than coffee, going to therapy. But at some point it becomes simply waiting it out; babies do grow, I know, because there is another small human in my house who is more of less capable of tending to his own basic needs without much effort on my part. Left to his own devices, my 4 year old could manage to feed himself, go to the bathroom, and put himself to bed.

I’m not sure what my point is, really, except that if you’re finding the year to be just as long, or longer, than a very long day of mothering a small child or two, know that you’re not alone. Time doesn’t always pass as quickly as we want it to, but it does pass. It doesn’t detract from loving your children, or feeling #blessed to be having this problem in the first place. Sometimes it’s just about sitting with it and knowing you’d use the fast forward button if you could.

And being brutally honest with well-meaning cashiers.

004

Velcro

Today I noticed how when the baby does his best Velcro impersonation, he lays his head on my chest and pops his left thumb in his mouth. Every time. 

I tuck my cheek to the top of his head, try to determine if his hair is starting to curl more than it did the day before. With any luck, he’ll have the same springy curls his brother did as a toddler. I breathe in his smell. He smells like nothing and everything, and it is my favorite smell. I would bottle it if I could. I would collect the smell from the baby blanket my oldest carries around and the smell from the top of my youngest’s head and keep them in tiny glass jars on the top of my dresser, neatly labeled. If I could. Because to be a mother is to know there will be a day I need the jars.

I wonder if, when the baby lays his head of my chest, he is searching out my heartbeat. I wonder if he is remembering the 280 days he spent tucked inside me, cozy in my ribcage, with the drum of my heart and the whoosh of his water bed.

My oldest gets choked up when we talk about the first time he saw his brother, or if I remind him he was once in my tummy the same way he remembers his brother being. It’s sweet, and a nice antidote to the proclamations of “mommy, you’re MEAN!” that he tosses around now that he’s four-going-on-five. I think he remembers my heartbeat, and being one person, in a way he might never have the words for. 

The baby is 10 months old now. He’s been out longer than he was in. His world is big. He can sit himself up and army crawl to wherever he wants to go. He can play peekaboo and wrestle with his brother. He can say “all done,” “night-night,” and “dada.” This small vocabulary covers a lot of ground, especially when he says “all done night-night,” to convey that he is done taking a nap, thanks but no thanks.

He can also protest loudly and fervently when he wants to be in my arms and isn’t. Which is, for the past couple of weeks, all the time. I could say there is no greater honor than being someone’s entire world, but let’s be honest, it’s mostly just really exhausting. Didn’t we already do this part, the part where we were one person? 

I might be a sucker or maybe my soul can sense that these days are fleeting, no matter how interminable they currently feel. Every day I get a little bit closer to actually needing those tiny glass jars on my dresser. Some days this feels okay, preferential even. I could write a book! I could take a trip! I could not get woken up at 5 am! I could not get yelled at for suggesting someone finish their breakfast! Other days I can already feel the dull ache, deep in my core, the place that once held them. 

So when the baby screams again, his face quickly shading to strawberry or tomato, I pick him up, and settle him on my hip. He lays his head on my chest and pops his thumb in his mouth. I take a deep breath in. 


See Also

To write is to be in conversation with yourself, to preserve a state of being so you can conclude a sequence of thinking and feeling. The enemy to this process is intrusion. Children, in all of their beauty and wildness and strange genius, are, in the way of a meteorite, an intrusion.

from Mothers as Makers of Death by Claudia Dey


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003

Family Vacation Edition

We went down to the coast a couple weekends ago.

My husband grew up vacationing in Port Aransas, and we’d been dating for a couple of years when, after hearing so many of his stories start with “In Port A…” I suggested he take me to this place I’d never been to. It didn’t take much for me to fall in love with the small town, what with the vintage beach cottages, the palm trees, and the grocery store that looked like a time warp back to 1990 (my mom failed to see the nostalgia in this, but it’s not her childhood we’re talking about).

I’ve romanticized the idea of having a regular vacation spot since a trip to Ocean City, Maryland in my teens. The idea of returning, year after year, to the same place that could, in time, become as familiar as home, was hugely appealing (it probably goes without saying that my family did not have a regular vacation spot). So the fact that our 4-year-old already has a backdrop of memories in Port Aransas, that he frequently asks to go to the beach, makes my husband and I equally happy.

I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve been back since our first trip together, sometimes 3 times in a year, usually for long weekends that never feel quite long enough. We’re always trying to optimize our trip: the best time to leave Austin and the route to take, where to stop along the way for bathrooms, snacks and/or diesel (always Buc-ee’s, which you have to see to truly appreciate its brazen American ways), what to pack, and what to do while there.

This was our second trip to the coast since our youngest was born and Hurricane Harvey ripped through the island (Texas Monthly had a great article about the destruction and the rebuilding; I read it while in Port Aransas, which felt very meta). And as much as I enjoy our trips down there, it’s a tremendous amount of work on my part. The laundry, the shopping, the planning, the packing, arranging pet care… it’s worse with two kids and sometimes it feels easier just to stay at home, as sad as that is. I know it won’t always be this way. At some point, I hope, I’ll be able to send the boys off to pack for themselves, and not worry about loading up all of the needed baby gear and packing for three out of four members of our family (thankfully, my husband can be counted on to at least gather his own wardrobe for the trip).

Of course, I always enjoy myself once we’re there, although Eli, my four-year-old, probably had the most fun out of all of us on this trip. Invariably, I ended up hanging out inside while the baby napped or went to bed at his preferred hour of 6 pm, while Eli and my husband took full advantage of the schedule of evening activities: soccer on the Great Lawn, s’mores at the fire pit, a movie under the stars. He chatted up anyone who would listen and played hard on the wooden pirate ship playscape. (I did enjoy a couple of cold margaritas poolside over the course of the weekend, so don’t pity me too much).

We have a lot of proverbial balls in the air right now, and I’m wound up even tighter than usual. It was probably on Day 3, waking up again in our rented condo, that I felt myself relax. It sounds ridiculous, but I could actually see the things that currently drive me nuts about my children in a positive light. The baby is on a different schedule every day? Great, that means we can go with the flow since it’s impossible to know what his naps will be like (he took a delicious and unanticipated one-hour nap in my arms at the aquarium while my oldest played on the splash pad). Four-year-old has endless energy and a need to talk to strangers? Perfect, we’re at a family-friendly resort with lots of other kids around and room to run.

I don’t think I need to tell you how refreshing it was to just be with my family. Even though I still ended up preparing meals (dining out with my children right now feels more like a punishment than a treat), tidying up, and even doing laundry (which definitely reminded me of this Onion article from a few years ago), it was infinitely easier there than at home. Why? Was it the poolside margaritas? The breeze off the gulf?

We drove back home on a Tuesday, scraping together an on-the-road lunch with the remainder of the groceries we’d bought. Everything was sandy and the baby fussed for much of the drive home. So long, vacation. Once we pulled back into our driveway I knew we’d be dealing with the beginnings of a home remodel and getting Eli ready to start summer camp at a new preschool.  I could feel my shoulders creeping back up towards my ears.

I know these are the days or whatever, and someday I might be nostalgic for my boys not needing me to make they sure they have enough clean undies and dry diapers to make it through a weekend at the beach. But when it takes you three days to unwind from the everydayness of your life, what’s the secret to having perspective in the middle of the 17th tantrum about snacks, or when the baby wakes up in the middle of the night for the fourth time?

Probably by the time I figure this out it won’t matter anymore.


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