By Alizabeth Worley

As a teenager, I spent hours sitting on the rickety porch behind my dad’s house, watching hummingbirds fly around the feeder.

My dad and I were talking about hummingbirds last week, and how rare it is to see the actual tongue of the hummingbird stick out an inch past its beak, even for those who are accustomed to sitting for hours on that rickety backyard porch. It had been a hard week, and talking to my dad about the hummingbird feeder brought me a kind of soft calm. I can’t say why these sitting spells were meaningful to me seven years ago, or why it meant so much to talk with my dad about bird watching last week, but such things stay in my mind.

Most meaningful experiences of my life have functioned this way, through an accumulation of mild minutes. Even marriage and motherhood have taken hold in me over a course of barely discernible increments, through the shared tasks of brushing teeth and pulling on socks or the pleasure of sitting on a park bench next to my husband while our son crawls through a playground tunnel, pausing to wave his arm through a window.

I am grateful for the idea of small and simple things. Especially, I am grateful that I don’t need to pull together a single majestic performance on which my role as “spouse” or “mother” hinges. I am grateful for the effect I can have on my son by telling him I love him each morning and sleeping beside him (my choice) at night. But I also fear this principle, fear my daily failings—above all as a mother. I am not a stay-at-home mom, or, more importantly, capable of being one. I send my son to daycare or a babysitter most days, even when I don’t have school or work. I grow weepy and despairing on days when I don’t have a few hours in solitude, for reasons I don’t understand, and then I can hardly engage with my son at all.

On days when I can only think about the hours my son is away, I wonder, what makes me a mother? My son calls me mama, but what does that mean to him? And on the hardest days, when I feel like I am just barely surviving, hardly connecting with my son at all, I don’t have a good answer.

Yet I need my little moments with Jeffrey, not as much as he needs me, but deeply even so. I need to hear his little intonations, the way he announces his intention to jump before bending both knees and toppling forward, or asks me to hold him (“carry!”) while raising his arms. I’m not proud of admitting my neediness for him; I do not want to sound codependent, and I don’t think he bears the burden of my emotional wellbeing. But I know, even on my part-time basis, that helping Jeffrey helps me—comforts me, grounds me, reminds me that my presence today matters.

The most important part of my day looks something like this. As bedtime nears, I tell Jeffrey, “Let’s get ready for bed,” and he says, “No! Tup?” (Tup, you should know, means toothbrush, and if he’s asking about his toothbrush then I know he’s tired.) So, we go upstairs, and I put toothpaste on one of his Crayola themed toothbrushes. Jeffrey says “Mommy’s?” loudly until I put toothpaste on my own purple toothbrush and we brush our teeth. Jeffrey sits by the edge of the sink, asking for more water to fill up the bristles of his brush over and over until I spit into the sink and he spits into the sink after me—ptuh!—and I pull him off the bathroom counter before helping him into his pajamas.

This, and the rest of our bedtime routine, is the one thing I do every day with my son. I almost never get up when he does—his papa takes him first thing in the morning—and sometimes he goes to the babysitter before I wake, and sometimes I do not see my son until evening, and some evenings, if I am especially busy or not feeling well, I don’t see Jeffrey until shortly before bedtime. But every night of his life I have put him to bed, and most nights I have read a book with him and helped him turn out the lights, and right now, each night, before he chooses a book to read, we spend a few minutes brushing our teeth and voicing our gibberish notions as we push the bristles around our gums and teeth and tongue.


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