2007. I am a brand new mother. It is springtime. My daughter, born on New Year's Day, is a few months old. The weather is finally nice in Manhattan, where I live, and my cozy stint of hibernation is over. On this particular day, I take the baby to a playground in Central Park. A strange decision, because she is so tiny and can't yet do much, but off we go.
We arrive. Find a shaded spot on a bench in the fenced-in yard. I sit. There is a slight breeze. My sweet girl drifts off in her stroller. I study her little face. Her endless swoop of lashes. Her chubby cheeks.
I lift my gaze. Look around.
Directly across the playground, through the slides and over the sandbox, I see another woman. Another mother. She sits alone on a bench just like mine. She wears all black. Her hair is pulled back, slicked into a bun. Even from a distance, I can glimpse what she is doing. She is tethered to a tiny rectangle. A phone. She alternates between making calls and typing frantically. Every few minutes, she looks up. Her eyes dart fiercely. She spots her towheaded toddler son nearby, smiles, waves and goes back to her phone.
I watch this. And I feel many things. Horror. Sadness. Judgment. Superiority. Smugness.
I peer down at my own child, snoozing and serene, and have a distinct, crystalline thought. I don't know what kind of mother I will be -- it is still too soon to tell -- but I will never be like that woman across the way.
The woman in black.
2014. Seven years later. I am no longer a rookie. I now have three kids. All girls. One is 7. One is 5. One is almost 3. They are good little creatures -- rule-following, smart and sweet, ever eager to please. They are zapping in the way all kids are, but I've tricked myself into celebrating the exhaustion that shrouds me. I mainline coffee.
Things have changed. They are not babies. There are no more strollers. No more cribs. We are days from being Pull-Up-free. There are lost teeth and chapter books and spelling tests. Time passes. Days pile up. The kids go off to school and do their afterschool things and come home. They eat organic nuggets and slurp buttery bowties and beg for dessert and I give it to them because I don't have the energy to argue and also because I want to. My husband and I take them to bed and chaperone teeth brushing and flossing and they bicker over tiny bottles of mouthwash. We read stories and let them read stories to us. We tidy messes and turn on night lights and tuck them into their beds and whisper words in their ears and kiss their soft cheeks and sweep hair from their tired eyes and say goodnight.
And then, if we are lucky, there is this odd, edifying silence. We finally eat dinner. We cobble together conversations. We put the dishes in the sink. We turn on a show. Something good. "Homeland" or "Downton Abbey" or "Girls." I try not to fall asleep during the show. Often I do. I tumble into bed, surrender to dream-mottled sleep, and wake to do it all again.
It is going well. I tell myself this. And it is true.
One day, a friend of mine, a dear friend, emails me. And her email is long and honest and raw. And it startles me. This friend who is not only put-together, but a parenting expert, confesses something. That she is not very good at playing with her kids. She says that she wants to do a blog project exploring the topic of parenting and play and she invites me to contribute. And I am a writer and a thinker and this is just my kind of thing and I am swift to agree. Of course I will contribute!
But I put off writing my post. I am a devoted procrastinator, but it is more than this. The truth? That email and this assignment have stopped me in my tracks. I realize something: I am a good mother, proud of the job I'm doing, but I don't play all that much with my kids.
Sometimes, when they are playing, I'm glued to a tiny screen. My fingers are fast and furious. I get things done. I respond to emails, make appointments, RSVP to birthday parties, order shampoo on Amazon Prime, check blog comments and Facebook updates and Instagram and Twitter too, jot notes for the novel I'm trying so desperately to finish. I craft electronic invitations to the literary salons I host each month, make dinner reservations, order sushi, Google healthy recipes for Brussel sprouts. Every few minutes, I look up and study the scene. My girls are fine, a blurry twirl of blonde hair and blue eyes. It occurs to me to snap another anonymous picture. To filter it. To scribble an eloquent update to accompany it. I post it somewhere, this picture. I share it with friends and strangers.
I am there, but not there.
I am here, but not here.
The day comes. My post is due. It is a bright and cold Friday. I sit down to write. I stare out the window of my writing room, at the city I love, where I was raised and where we are now raising them. I splash words on the screen. And then delete them. The cursor blinks. The whiteness mocks me. I stand and pace. Sit down again. I write and what I write is clumsy. This feels hard. And it should. It is always hard to admit hard things.
As I write and tinker, tinker and write, I find myself thinking about that woman in black from years ago. What was her story? What was going on in her head, in her home? Did she have a demanding job or other kids? Did she lose her father to cancer? Was she trying to write a novel or hold onto her sense of self? Was her hair greased back in a bun because she didn't have a moment that morning to shower?
All of a sudden, this woman is not a character in a cautionary tale.
All of a sudden, she is a person in a real life.
All of a sudden, she is me.
I've written something now and it's OK. It will have to do. I stop typing and edit obsessively and then I press "Send." And when I do, when I finally let go, the room in which I'm sitting is suddenly thick with silence and I find myself thinking about my girls. They are snug at school, learning, playing, evolving, becoming who it is they are becoming. I find myself missing them like crazy. I long for them to come home, to kick off their soggy pink snow boots and shed their backpacks. I am hungry for their hugs.
When they come home, I will scoop them up. I will kiss their cheeks and I will ask about their days. For today at least, I will stash the phone far away. I will keep the computer closed. I will shadow them as they forage for snacks in the pantry and settle into the family room and decide what to play. And, this time, I will join them.
I will try.
And I will vow to keep trying.
Because that's what this gig, this glorious gig, is all about.
To read more of Aidan's writing, visit her blog Ivy League Insecurities.