The Invisibility of Mothering

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Credit: Volcan Olmez

Motherhood sometimes makes you feel like you’ve lost yourself and become invisible to the world you used to know.

We used to enjoy going to lunch together mid-week. Just my little toddler boy and me, while the older brother was at school. He brought his stuffed animal and a make-believe dragon toy and we sat in a booth together in the after-lunch time when there weren’t so many diners.

Our waitress was a young 20-something woman with a bright smile and an attentive, busy nature. She didn’t mind the ketchup mess he was making with his fries (extra tip money for that girl, I thought).

I listened to his three-year-old voice tell me his story about his dragon and his stuffed animal, and I watched his delicious face and his long eyelashes and all his amazing silly light.

I had to keep an eye on my watch – the older brother would be dropped off at the bus stop within the hour. But it was like time wasn’t passing anymore. I had learned to be in the moment with my kids, finally. You have to, or you’ll miss the really good stuff.

His favorite part was the ice cream, so of course, we stayed for that. And as he got himself all messy in birthday cake ice cream, we talked together about his favorite characters from his favorite PBS show. He even sang a little bit of the song from it for me right there. We both laughed and sang it together one more time.

The light from that boy’s eyes, and the lilt of his laughter. If I could have frozen time right then and there, I would have, and I’d still be there now.

It’s indescribable that sound of your own child’s laughter. Knowing that it’s fleeting makes it all the more precious. You know his laugh won’t sound exactly like that a year from now. He’s changing every single second. You can’t bear to miss ANY of it.

No one knew I was there that day. No one was watching. I was invisible. The world was moving on without me while I sat there with him and soaked up the hour and his laughter.

I’d been feeling so invisible. Not ungrateful — just as if my former identity and my “noticeable” life had disappeared, in a weird way. I was just “mom” for now and that was important, rewarding and wonderful. But it was sometimes sad and really hard for me, too. It was a really big part of me I left behind when I became a mom. It was surprising to me that I often felt invisible.

The waitress handed me the check, and as she placed it in front of me on the table, she looked at him and smiled. She turned to me, looked right in my eyes, and said, “You’re a really great mom.”

It was so surprising and unexpected, my breath caught a little bit and I forced out an awkward giggle. I smiled and said, “Oh, thank you. That’s so nice of you.”

She said, “No really, I’ve been watching you with him. You’re a great mom.

I smiled. I looked at him, with his smiling sticky face and long eyelashes. She smiled at us again and rushed away to another customer.

I was surprised at my tears, really. I had to just wipe ’em away before anyone even noticed.

To be noticed like that. When you’re resigned to feeling invisible.

It was a gift, what that young woman did for me that day. A lifelong gift. Every time I remember it, I stand firm in my belief that everything I gave up for this parenthood job was worth it.

He’s 14 years old now. My little man, with his voice already changing. Tall as me, with long slender fingers having replaced the little sticky ones. Same long eyelashes, though…

What I would give to go back to that day.

My Playroom Blues

Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash
Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

Where do YOU keep it all, parents?

That cache of objects and artifacts from your children’s baby years and toddlerhoods that you can’t bear to part with?

I have a room full of it in my basement. It’s a separate room down there that we call “the playroom.” When my sons, now 14 and 17, were small, they spent hours together in that room, playing with Legos, Playmobil, Matchbox and Imaginext toys …. I could hear them playing together and laughing uproariously while I was upstairs making dinner or cleaning.

Parents of small children, PAY ATTENTION TO THIS… You have no idea how fast things will change. It’s inevitable.

There was a subtle shift when my older son turned 13ish… the increased self-consciousness and onset of pubescence was almost imperceivable when he was 12 and still had a 9-year old sibling. They still laughed together, and the older brother still enjoyed playing and being silly with the younger one. He probably welcomed respite from the increasingly challenging and rapidly-maturing social culture he was encountering at school.

But when our younger one crossed that same threshold, we had already somehow crossed a seismic shift in their relationship.

There are miles of distance in the divide between the worlds of boys in 8th grade and 11th grade. Eighth grade is still silly boy-child goofiness and memes about unfortunately timed farts and Super Smash Bros Brawl Nintendo game characters. 11th grade is (holy heck, how did we get here?!) college tour season. Mini-adulthood. At the threshold of grown-up-ness. One freaking foot out the door, people. It’s hard. (Have you watched the scene in the movie “Boyhood” where the mom, played so authentically by Rosanna Arquette, says to her just-turned-adult son, “I just thought there’d be…. more.” Shit gets real.)

The house is a lot quieter these days. My sons are not mean to one another, they simply co-exist in their own spheres. On their separate screens. For their father and me, it’s hard to watch. We know this is another developmental phase along a continuum. We both remember times when we experienced similar separateness from our own siblings — it’s perfectly normal development. It’s still hard to watch.

My husband decided to clean up the basement last week, to get rid of the “stuff” we no longer use or need in it, and he targeted the playroom first. He seemed mystified that I’d let all that stuff sit in there for so long, gathering dust. I looked at him squarely in the eyes and said, “Good luck with that.” He looked at me, confused by the answer. I said, “You’ll see.”

“The playroom” has been the bane of my existence for the past several years. I gather up my strength, determined that I’ll make headway and clear it all out into boxes headed to Goodwill. Within an hour, I’m wallowing in nostalgic melancholy about the years when they were small.

I can’t bear to put into the Goodwill boxes the Imaginext castle set with the knights and the dragon they used to fly around the house, the Wall-E movie plastic “Eve” with the little compartment in her belly to hold the little plastic shoe-plant she protected, or the R2-D2 robot they learned how to make dance to the cantina scene song by telling it in their little-boy voices, “R2! Dance time!”… it feels too much like closing the door on their childhood. It’s too hard to acknowledge that their “little selves” are both gone. I know they’re turning into wonderful young adults, but it still feels like loss. And you grieve losses.

Would it help to hire someone to cart it all away while I cover my eyes and pretend it’s not happening? Absolutely. But I can’t bring myself to do that, either.

My husband emerged upstairs from the playroom after two hours of his attempted clearing. Seated at my desk, I paused my work, and turned to look at him. His expression looked more like someone who’s just been told his dog is dying than a man who triumphantly cleared a roomful of clutter. He said, “Oh, my goodness…That room.” I nodded my head slowly. “Yep,” I said.

Now he understands. Will there come a day when we can muster the strength? The option of hiring someone to do the job for us is looking better and better.