Margot Merrill on modern parenthood and the writing life

4Jan/120

Thankful

There are so many moments of beauty and joy in our days. Small moments with the kids. Their eyes. Their stories. Hugs.

It's crazy beautiful. Alejandro and Story Jane, my husband, our life...I feel blessed. "The stars shone on you," said our caregiver the other day. It's true. I feel it, and want to share.

Thankful for every moment, and for you.

Margot

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3Jan/125

You know you’re a parent when…

  1. "a night out" means dinner out
  2. you too eat buttered pasta several times a week
  3. six hours is a dreamy stretch of sleep
  4. your time is...forget it. you have no time.
  5. the statement "it's a whole new universe" sums it up
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30Dec/112

the Holiday bawl

I bawled on Christmas Eve day. It was a hearty, completely-losing-it weepfest. It felt pretty good to cry as I fought to finish the handmade cherry pie. As my daughter didn't take her afternoon nap. As a half-hour's drive away my husband, 4-year old son, and in-laws awaited me, and the baby girl, and dessert. I'd worked till 11:00 the night before. Oh yes, woe!

I was wallowing in woes. Most of my own making.

Earlier in the day I'd had good friends visit–Jen and Karissa. We drank coffee and sat outside in the sunlight as I tried to rapidly decompress. I kept looking for my holiday spirit. I welcomed it, but hadn't given myself any time. Jen, one of my oldest friends, juggled baby Story and cleaned up our kitchen. Karissa rolled out my rock-hard crumbly pie dough. She's like that. You can hand Karissa a tortured lump of "pate brisee" or a crying newborn baby, or ask her to hang a picture in your house, and she's got it. We talked about the hard knocks of 2011. I tried to tell them how much I appreciated seeing them.

I got messy after they left. I cried because year-old Story Jane wouldn't sleep, and I needed her to. (Sleep is my parental Achilles heel.) I was crying because I felt alone. And because I was remembering past holidays–Christmases of my childhood–and got swept away in the hope and disappointment. (Santa. Right. Happiness forever. Right.)  I kept crying and looking at my daughter watching me cry from her high chair. I hated that I wasn't together. And that despite Jen and Karissa's help, the pie wasn't together, much less baked.

So why didn't I just go buy a goddamn pie? Or arrive without dessert?

Humbled by this question, I have to admit I needed a good breakdown. I bawled for more than two hours, and then I felt better. I was still snuffling, but calm as at last I drove, with the pie and the baby intact, to Rafael's family's house. I was to arrive with puffy eyes and a fresh cherry pie with a small heart cut in the center of the top crust. The cherry goo had sloshed in transit and the pie looked just like I felt: an achy bleeding heart.

No matter–I walked in and it was the holidays. Raf's mom offered me a glass of wine and I sat down with Story and got a thousand hugs from a very happy Alejandro. I'd arrived. Not on time, not perfect, but present.

I'm learning that's the most I should expect and strive for. To be present. I'm still squirreling my way around it, but it feels so good when I'm there.

And note to self: it's probably best to avoid such drama in the future. Next year I'll take a couple of days off before Christmas. And maybe just buy a damn dessert.

Hold me to it.

Love you,

Margot

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2Dec/110

Four and One

I crawl  into the last month of 2011. My back's out. I'm all tweaked. Many things are going beautifully and just as they should. But I'm uneasy. Perhaps it's the month that's dragging me down. F'ing December. Always a time for introspection. And holiday madness. But it's not just that.  It's trying to understand and support the small people living in our house. And I try too hard.

FOUR

Alejandro Marcellus is four going on fourteen. He's kind. Articulate. Extremely logical. Persuasive. His interests include: Fighting. Star Wars. Things that get blown up. "Walking skeletons." Lego video games on the Playstation. His scooter and new bike. Playing with action figures, particularly those with guns, light sabers, knives, swords, scythes, axes, cannons, or other weapons. (You know. Right? Ahem.) He gets shy when he walks into a room full of people. Alejandro's also very into us, his family. He gives great hugs and kisses to mommy and daddy. He high-fives most everyone else.

But I worry that I don't understand him enough. Because, seriously, I've never been into pretending to shoot people. I remember a lot of talking stuffed animals in my childhood games.

And our wills can collide. Alejandro doesn't give up. He will ask and ask and ask and reposition his request and ask again. It drives me crazy. I don't know where he gets it.

All of this adds up to the fact that I'm in awe of the boy. I try to keep calm, and yes I'm in therapy, but he just seems so shockingly bright I'm confounded. I just love him so much, I hope I can give him what he needs.

ONE

Story Jane Fernandez. A girl named Story. Oh yes we did. She's now a year old. A beautiful girl–the name fits her perfectly. She's rather magical. Good natured and outgoing. Her first "sign" was dog (panting) and her first word was "hi." "Hi" is a constant. She says it waving to strangers: "Hiiiii!" It's delightful.

She started walking at 11 months, and since then she is EVERYWHERE. Holy heck! She's bashing into everything. Falling down. Into everything.  It's like scattergories in our house and in my brain. Hard to keep up. And of course she doesn't sleep through the night that often. She has the same dumb parents as Alejandro. While we've done much better on the sleep training front, it's still so hard to let her cry. Why does listening to a baby cry for twenty minutes seem much harder than "just" getting out of bed to return a pacifier? I don't know. Sleep-addled habits don't die.

So that, my friends, is why I'm crawling into December. I'm trying to keep up with a two-foot tall wobbler and a three-foot tall teenager.

And it's winter. Shouldn't we all be hibernating?

Please?

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29Nov/110

Dear blog (a word that sounds like something coughed out of a smoker’s lung)

I am sorry, blog, for I have not written.

I have excuses. In short: my job, and our tiny baby children. The job: a new role being defined. The children, aged four and one. Four and one, goddammit. Have you no pity?

Of course not. You're me.

I drive myself crazy expecting perfection. It's a mindset that grants moments of elation. But then the rest of life sucks.

One isn't supposed to berate oneself for being a failure all the time.

I'm totally over that now, blog.  That's right. I write in you because you're supposed to be short and frequent and fun. Not precious.

So there. I'm blogging again. BTW, I HATE the word blog. It's quite unattractive. See the title - that's right, that's what I really think.

But I like talking to you, and to the few real people whom I might reach through you.

Thanks for that, and for forgiving me about the not writing thing. And the title. We're cool, right?  Right.

Love ya,

Margot

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3Aug/110

A Dream

I'm trying to get to the east bay. In run-down SF I borrow my mom's old white Honda. I find it in a parking lot parked behind another car. I have to explain to the parking attendant that I didn't know we couldn't park there. (Those spaces reserved for someone else.)

I promise that next time, I will park upstairs. Now that I know. I get in the car, which is new to me. The dashboard is covered in rubber. The seats are covered too, in cloth. I picture my mom caring for this used car. Wrapping up its cracks. Driving from the lot, I understand I've underestimated the time. I thought it was plentiful but it was based on having my own car, my usual routine.

I decide it would be faster to ride a bike. I get on it and start towards the bay bridge. I am biking as fast as I can. I am smoking, too. I realize this when i see a tower of ash on a cigarette in my hand on the handlebars. I take a deep drag of its nastiness. In the same moment- this is under an overpass, like on Division by Bryant - I realize there's no way to bike across the bridge.

Now I am trying to figure out the nearest BART station. I'm depressed. I realize when I get there, to the other side of the bay, I'll have so far still to go on the bike. It's impossible. I'm impossibly late. I pull over on the bike, still smoking that nasty stick, a disappointment, to study a map.

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23Jun/116

Returning to work

The return to work was rough, mostly because it coincided with my husband being out of town for like, two months. Sure, he was back for a week here and a few days there, but it was intense. With a five-month old and a three-year old, plus a half-assed plan for childcare, it really sucked. There. I said it. No, wait, I'm not done! It REALLY REALLY SUCKED. But since we're not planning on having more kids, at least I can say: Well then. I won't have to do THAT again.

I have the option to bring Story Jane with me to work since Hot Studio has a formal, and awesome, babies-at-work policy for returning parents. It's a great benefit, and it helped the first few weeks, but I couldn't swing it any longer. I was a single parent returning to the workforce in a new role. After being off for almost seven (!!) months, I was ready to just get back to work. And frankly, I'm not the most chill mom in the world. More specifically, I freak out when my kids aren't sleeping. So trying to get Story to take a nap–while meeting new people and setting up new processes at work– was a recipe for a mommy meltdown.

The ongoing identity crisis: I didn't say "I'm a mother," but "a mommy." I also have a full time job and a fancy new title. Transitioning between these two roles is what's most awkward. I can get so into work, and so fulfilled by it, to be honest, I don't leave at 5:30 as planned. I probably haven't pumped at the designated time. My commute home is super stressful, 'cause I know I'll miss my daughter being awake. My husband, if he's home, has to cover for me. We haven't made dinner plans. Even leaving at 6:00, I'm too late. I've f'ed it up, and I'm not even home yet.

When I walk in, I've got to be on. I want nothing more than to squeeze my boy. Usually Alejandro doesn't have pants on and he's doing ninja moves. He desperately wants someone to decapitate action figures with him.

I give him a big hug and many kisses. That's the best, for both of us. Then I deny his requests to play. I may make dinner, or feed Story, and put her to bed if I'm not too late. That means patting her back and singing and letting her cry. I walk out of the room for five minutes at a time as she screams. I give Ali a Popsicle, then return to pat her back some more. I hear Ali stomping towards their bedroom. "Mommy!?" His Popsicle has dripped all over his privates and the hallway, and as soon as Story hears him, she wakes up and cries louder. She's frustrated she isn't part of the violence in the living room.

It's really fun. No really, it's not.

I don't know why I expected it to be "fun." What Kool-Aid did I drink, way back when I was envisioning myself as a super chill, relaxed, loving and art-inspiring parent? And can I please have some more?

I wouldn't change anything about my life, of course. It's my design, rough edges and fuckups included. I wouldn't trade our two gorgeous babies or their amazing dad who has a creative job at which he excels (but requires him to travel)–not for anything. Or give up my job, for that matter. I love it. I love going to it, and I can't deny that.

So here I am, a modern parent.

My friend Katrina, who writes the profound workingmom'sbreak blog, told me long ago that she and her husband sometimes said to one another: "There's just not enough to go around." It's a sad state, but a good reminder to avoid the blame game between partners. It doesn't seem like enough, but it has to be.

Experienced moms tell me that it'll get much easier when the kids are in elementary school. "It's just five years away," my boss and friend Maria told me tonight. Just five years. Only a parent would be crazy enough to say that.

Only a mommy like myself would accept that decree with a bowed head. And then mourn those years' passing.

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25May/113

Mommy, Get Your Gun

It was bound to be bad. The gun in the trunk. The toy gun I mean. That Star Wars-branded, two-foot-long bastard of a "blaster." Unopened, it remained in its disintegrating Target bag since Christmas. It was a moral issue, a parenting issue, a marital issue...and just a hunk of molded plastic. But by leaving it there, I was not just tempting fate. I was baiting it.

I'd posted the question on Facebook: "Should Santa bring weapons? Specifically toy guns."  The conversation with friends and family was great. It ranged from "Boys will be boys, no big deal as long as you're teaching him to be nice" to "No way, you're teaching him the most violent weapon is okay" to my second cousin's comment that her boys hunted, and had been taught from an early age about respect for the gun and for the animals. Of course here in Oakland, the closest we come to hunting is going to the Farmer's Market and handing over a debit card in exchange for a humanely raised hunk of cow. I don't have the option of teaching Ali to hunt. So what, then, with the toy gun?

Rafael-as-Santa bought it, he said, "so we could talk about it." We did, and decided not to give it to Ali. I definitely had a moral objection to it, namely WHY? He's not lacking for means of entertainment. Or toy weapons, for that matter. He could, and did, make guns out of blocks whenever he wanted. My objection was also selfish. "I don't want the thing pointed at ME," I said."Not to mention the annoying noise. And why is there only one? I can't even fight back!" Therein lay the second moral dilemma: if you have one toy gun, shouldn't you really have two?

Lastly, the third morale issue: what to do with the damn thing? We lost the receipt. I thought of donating it to charity. And then I was thinking, in the worst example of class-ism yet: "So I'm going to arm the less fortunate?" Not only did I not feel good about any kid having it, maybe I fear an apocalypse, just a little bit. In which case I want MY kid to be comfortable with firearms. So f'ed up.

Of course, Ali found it. I was packing up both kids to take them, and myself, for a sleepover at Raf's parents'. Rafael had been out of town for more than a week. Maybe it was my first foray into solo parenting for two? Anyway, I was exhausted. I'd been up all night and since 6:00am, juggling. Ali deconstructed my kinda-organized piles of crap as quickly as I was losing my mind. I was almost done packing the car when I heard a squeal. I saw Alejandro's feet sticking out of the open trunk. My heart sank. Acute anger at my loving, gift-giving and absent husband spiked with a rush of adrenaline. Ali's head emerged with a face-splitting grin.

"IS THIS FOR ME???" he shouted, brandishing the box.

"Yes." I said with all of the enthusiasm of a cyborg. "It is."

"WHO is it from?"

"Your daddy. It's  a surprise. Let's go."

"I can keep it???????" He is high with delight now. He's pressing buttons. Pew! Pew! Pew! Tattatattatattattata. "Can you open it??"

"I'll open it when we get to Gigi's." His cousin Jack will be there, and I am now anticipating listening to them fight over it for the next 20 hours. I send a bitchy text message to Raf, load the kids, and start driving.

I look up the address of a Target on the way. I think I have to stop to buy Jack a Star Wars blaster of his own. I am seething with the idea of walking into a Target with the two kids. I can almost smell it, and I hate it. And how, I angrily think, do I find myself buying a toy gun? Because there is only one? I'm so occupied with the internal debate that I miss the exit. I turn the car around to go back. Pew! Pew! Pew! I hear from the backseat.

"You can press that ONE more time, Ali."

"Why?"

"Because Mommy's going crazy."

"Okay." He's not sleeping, of course, and I'd been counting on the drive to make him nap. I'm crying behind my sunglasses, and I realize I'm quite unstable. To my credit, I pull over. I get my shit together. I fake a call:

"Oh, so you don't have a Star Wars blaster? Are you sure? Okay, well thank you!" I explain to Ali that he will have to share his gun with Jack. They will have to trade off shooting one another. And if I hear them arguing about it, I'm going to take it away.

Pew pew pew! "Okay, Mommy." he sweetly replies. "I will share."

I drive to Grandma's. The boys share pretty well. Grandpa runs to Target and returns with new guns for both of them. They are happy. I go upstairs and lie down with Story while they run around like violent beasts in the backyard. I've given up. I must do that earlier, next time.

The blaster now sits in a broken laundry basket in our bedroom. Ali couldn't care less about it.

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11Mar/114

Embracing the Damn Pants

So I'm sitting here in my damn pants, as I have for the past four months. What are the damn pants, you ask? I didn't coin the term–my friend Marina's husband Ryan did. As in, "Are you wearing those damn pants again???" Many years ago she agreed not to wear the same goddamn pants every day. I, however, have only recently embraced the freedom of schlump. Given that I'm on maternity leave and living in Rockridge, close to Berkeley, where the fashion bar is low indeed, it's not surprising. It's impressive, really, that I pull off my PJ pants to put the damn pants on anyway, isn't it?

For who would care, around here? I swear people wear their pajamas to get groceries.  I see my neighbors, and they've seen me, in states of schlump absolutely unacceptable in the city. There, even my choice of hoody was carefully considered. On a hungover Saturday morning, would I wear the dark gray one with the black skateboard-inspired graphic, or the black one with the light gray graphic? Today, everything I have has washed to the same charcoal shade, so it REALLY doesn't matter anyway. I haven't bought new clothes since my large and disheartening expenditure on maternity garb. Until I bought my damn pants, that is.

Fine, I'll share my very Rockridge/Berkeley clothing secret with you: I've got expensive fat pants. They're from this place called Lululemon, and they're called Groove Pants. (The name of them is so embarrassing I feel like I'm confessing to eating Ding Dongs, which by the way, I've also done recently.) But, I'm telling ya, they're COMFORTABLE! And they kinda make me look like I'm in slightly better shape than I am. In all honesty, I'm fatter than I've ever been. It's okay, I'm not that worried about it. People keep telling me that I look great, and I know it's 'cause I'm happier than I was a year ago. Happiness, not slenderness, is the elusive elixir everyone's looking for. And oh yes: Groove Pants. Of course. Of course.

While I'm being honest, I'll also say: it's not easy to be calm, even when you're at home caring for one of the most chill babies in the universe. 'Cause you see, I'm still me. And while I've taken one of the longest maternity leaves I've ever heard of in inhumane America, it's been hard to stay "in the moment" and not count my days. I can't spend the time I have worrying about how it will be in the future.

My friend Rachel gave me a book called "Buddhism for Mothers." Other friends have mentioned a book called "Zen Mama." I've also strongly considered doing regular mindfulness meditation, but I haven't quite got it locked and loaded. Even finding 20 minutes every day seems like an impossibility, though I believe it would really help quiet my chattering brain.

Are there any working parents out there that are able to balance all of it? For that matter, are there stay at home parents who feel content? Let's talk about it. I want to share your secret sauce, 'cause I think all of us deserve to have rich, fun, and meaningful lives.

I'll take off the damn pants when I go back to work, but meanwhile, I'm gonna enjoy them.

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16Feb/113

This Time

This time is different. This time, I’m not going back to work in a week, when my baby’s three months old. This time, Rafael hasn’t traveled twice already. This baby sleeps more. And we live in a house in a quiet neighborhood, rather than in a walk-up flat in the heart of the beery Mission district. I have trees around me this time; quiet places to walk.

This time, I am different. I’m not a first-time mom. Talk about anxious! I was then. I wanted to do everything right, and always felt I was failing. I thought a baby was something to be managed, like I’d managed a career, relationships with lots of great friends, and the writing of my first novel. This time I know better. I know what a big change it is, and I’m no longer resisting.

I’m enjoying this time. How blessed we are! To have, of all things, time! And love! And healthy children! Even when I’m waking up in the middle of the night, padding down the hallway to feed Story Jane, I’m so thankful. I can kiss her sweet soft head. Hold her tight before I put her back down. Pray that she’ll be okay until the morning.

She’s a different sort than our son. “Alejandro was on fire this morning,” I mentioned to Raf. “He’s on fire every second of every day.” Rafael replied dryly.

And it’s true…there’s just an intensity to Alejandro. He’s a sweet, sensitive, and happy kidand he’s had that intensity since he was born. His eyes were searching frantically for meaning before he could focus. “Don’t try to figure it all out tonight,” I remember pleading with him when he was about five weeks old. “Man, you’ve got like 80 years!” The wheels in our son’s brain, however, do not heed such advice. He wrenched his weak head from side to side, trying to understand every last detail, never giving up.

I was desperate for sleep, but he never slept for more than an hour at a time. I took him into bed with me, but when I opened my eyes, there were his: staring at me, farther from sleep than he’d ever been. I believe he was calculating the number of eyelashes on each of my raccoon-ringed eyes. Or perhaps he was simply considering the contrast between the pillow and my unwashed head? He had to go back into his own room, his own crib, with nothing to look at, if there was any chance of his sleeping. He needed “neutral space.” He now wants constant Star Wars-inspired action, but I’m still trying to figure out how to provide him with that sense of calm.

Story has felt different from the beginning. She nestles into my arms rather than pushing away, as Ali did. She’s seemingly content, like she knows everything will turn out fine. Her eyes are rounder than any baby I’ve ever seen. She’s super observant. She watches all of the chaos of our life with Ali with those big wide-open eyes. She smiles like mad when anyone looks her way. But she has a comfortable detachment, like she’s two steps removed from everything, whereas Ali is one step ahead.

This time, I feel calmer. I keep wondering whether Story’s getting it from me, or vice versa. I’m sure it goes both ways. How could Alejandro calm down when I was so keyed up? “Calm down!” When you yell that (even if it’s unspoken), it doesn’t work. But no blame, now. We are who we are, and these kids remind me there’s a lot of Nature involved. It’s not just Nurture, though they sure need a ton of that too.

My task now is to follow Story’s lead: to embody the belief that it will all turn out. It’s much easier said than done. I feel the familiar anxiety when I consider going back to work, and how much time I have left before then. How can we do it? What about the next time Rafael’s gone? What about when he’s gone AND I’m working AND we have two kids? See how easy it is to go cuckoo? I know you do.

Meanwhile I thank you, and the gods, and Rafael, and my job, for encouraging the time I have now. It is different, and so am I, and I’m going to take another walk.

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