By Jodi Picoult
Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
Recently, I tried to explain to my four-year-old son that our caregiver, Sue, was leaving. We talked about Sue's new job, and I reassured him that he could still draw pictures for her and call her on the phone. I sat down on the bed, intent on making this transition easier for my son, and asked if he understood what this meant. "Sure," Kyle told me. "From now on, you're going to be the nanny."
It was true, but his words still startled me. Yes, I was becoming a nanny, or more precisely, a stay-at-home mom. After four years as a professional working mother, this would mean a significant change in my life-style, not to mention my kids'.
Let me first say that no mother I know is entirely happy with her current situation. Women who work a nine-to-five job often worry about leaving their kids in day care and dream about the simplicity of a world where the biggest time constraint centers on scheduling play dates. Stay-at-home mothers might sigh at the thought of a workplace where everyone is potty-trained. As a writer, I'd had the best of both worlds. I worked full-time from an in-home office, which let me sneak hugs when I wanted them, then disappear into my room and lock the door. I would hand my three kids — Kyle, his brother, Jake, age two, and Sammy, the baby — to our nanny every morning and go off to do what I was paid to do.
Then my husband and I decided that, finally, we were going to make our dreams come true and build a new house. Day care, one of the largest line items in our budget, began to look like a very nice down payment. We agreed that I'd take care of the kids while my husband, Tim, was at the office. When he returned home at six o'clock, my own workday would begin. Granted, we'd never see each other. But we'd have a new house in a year.
At first, I was thrilled with my new role. After hearing about — instead of witnessing — Kyle's first toddling Frankenstein steps and Jake's timid forays into English, I would actually be there for my daughter's first smile. But, a niggling voice reminded me, I'd also be there for the whole miserable time that she's teething or Jake is giving up his naptime. Suddenly, I panicked: I would be present for my kids' formative moments but also for everything in between. Would the new arrangement prove to be too much of a good thing?
My first week on the job was a sobering one. The children's initial glee over having Mom available on a twenty-four hours basis quickly wore off. Sue had let them eat breakfast while watching television. Sue had made them whatever they wanted for lunch. Sue was never talking on the phone when my four-year-old desperately needed to know how clouds were made. In my defense, Sue's only job had been to take care of the kids, whereas I had cleaning and errands to attend to. But when the kids held me up against the gold standard of their former nanny, they found me lacking. Throughout those first few weeks at home, I was haunted by one refrain: She made it look easy.
Some of the biggest challenges of being an at-home mother come simply from being tied to your home. I clean up the toy room at least five times a day, and each time I'm stunned by how much damage a few very small people can do in fifteen minutes. There is some comfort in being the drill sergeant and voice of reason, until you realize that you are the only voice of reason. Also, the only one that isn't high-pitched, doesn't lisp, and can string two coherent thoughts together. Indeed, I had forgotten how isolating the experience could be. By the time Tim comes home, I'm starved for conversation, dying to hear sentences that contain multisyllabic words.
The antidote to feeling isolated, of course, is to get out of the house. This is no small undertaking. It takes fifteen minutes to locate coats and negotiate who gets the red hat and who gets the blue. Another five minutes to pack up snacks that will keep the peace during the drive. Three minutes to struggle with car seats designed by childless sadists. And one minute to retrieve the infant in the car seat that I've inadvertently left on the kitchen table.
Some things you just can't do with three young kids who are all awake. You can't drink a cup of hot coffee — someone's always tugging on your leg to be picked up or wanting a sip. You can't complete any banking transaction that can't be managed at the drive-through window. You can't get your own hair cut or your teeth cleaned.
You can shop for groceries, but it becomes an Olympian event. We usually begin in the parking lot with a bribe: those who behave get M&Ms at the checkout stand. I unlatch Kyle and Jake and have them place both palms on the side of the car like little victims of arrest. This keeps them from darting into traffic while I wrestle the infant carrier seat free. Jake then throws a tantrum until I get the exact cart he wants, and Kyle crawls into a second cart. Then I push one cart and pull the other, my body a swivel hitch in a caravan that Jake has likened to Thomas the Tank Engine. We stop at the deli counter regardless of whether we need anything, because the kids are given free cheese. We spend most of our time in the cereal aisle with me trying to turn their heads the other way, knowing that health food is less seductive than a rabbit with 3-D glasses. At last, we pay and stagger back to the car for another round of loading.
Food shopping notwithstanding, there are highlights to being at home all day. I was watching the other day when Jake chivalrously shared his sandbox bucket with the preschool love of his life. It was into my arms that Kyle sprang when he got off the kindergarten school bus for the first time. I got to see my boys push their little sister in her stroller, leaning down to call her "sweetie pie," like I do.
Most memorable are those moments that sneak up on me when I least expect them. One day we were cleaning up paper left behind after a cut-and-paste free-for-all. Kyle had gathered all the clippings into a pile on the table. "Okay," I said. "Now let's get the stuff on the floor." My son looked at me, surprised, and then dutifully swept the pile over the edge. Then there was the time I had just collapsed on a couch, exhausted after a particularly difficult morning, when my two-year-old crawled up beside me. "I lub you," he said. "My pick my nose?"
At the end of every day I retreat to my office at 6:00 P.M. to start my second job. Sometimes when I write, the results come out sounding like Dr. Seuss. Play, I now realize, is very hard work. I've had to gain endurance and patience. I've become an expert at arbitration; I've developed a professional voice of authority. And I've learned to see my old career anew. Handling a demanding editor pales in comparison to negotiating with a toddler in the throes of a full-blown tantrum.
After several months at home full-time, it still isn't easy. Occasionally, to reinforce my confidence, I have to remind myself that Mary Poppins is a fictional character, not a benchmark to measure myself against. I tell myself that not everyone has the imagination to make a sea monster out of an egg carton as I did last week, or to pick Play-Doh out of the carpet and nurse a baby simultaneously.
There are other gains worth noting. Because I am on duty around the clock, I've come to know my kids with a thoroughness I did not possess before. Likewise, I am no longer a mysterious woman who does God knows what on a computer they are not allowed to touch. I am now someone who senses a crisis even before a lower lip trembles; someone who knows the right moment to call attention to a bulldozer out the window and avert a sibling war. We may still fit the broad roles of parent and child, but now we also see each other as complex individuals, and we've learned what makes each other laugh, hurt, and heal.
Even now as I'm writing, I hear the sounds of an escalating fight outside my office. The baby is screaming, and my husband is slowly losing patience. See, it's not just me, I think, glad to be out of the fray. And then I recall naptime, which for the first time in a while, came without a squall. I remember how easily the kids crawled into bed and how beautiful they were. I stare at my computer, where I am supposed to be mulling over the plot and characters of a new novel. Instead I find myself considering whether tomorrow will be the day Kyle reads aloud his first word, or Sammy sits up by herself. I try to shake my thoughts back to the matter at hand. But I find myself thinking instead of my children, characters who have taken the story of my own life and have given it twists stranger and far sweeter than in any fiction.