And cringe. The number one reason the writer bemoans her stay-at-home years is because she was a disappointment to those who came before her.
I sigh heavily. As if Gloria Steinem gives two S-H-I-Ts whether I work or not, I think defensively.
But truth be told, the sigh isn’t exasperation. Not really. It’s recognition. How could first-and second-wave feminists not care what my generation does with the freedoms they fought for? What debt do I owe Margaret Sanger, bell hooks, Sojourner Truth? What about all the women born before me who would have been so, so much happier if they’d had the choice to work, to have their own money, to be free? I do constantly wonder if I owe them anything. I constantly tell myself they fought for me to have choices . . . and then hope and pray they might have seen my own choice as a legitimate one. Another long, hefty sigh. I should stop reading this list right now, but I can’t.
The next entry makes my stomach churn: I had too much time on my hands.
Was I busy? asks the author. Sure. Busy worrying too much, helicoptering my kids, and making up standards of perfection that only served to make other mothers feel bad. I remember running around like crazy, being the default parent to anyone’s kids, taking on every drop of volunteering work I could find, signing my kids up for too many activities and special events because I needed to feel like I was putting myself to use. But in the end, if you ask my son what I did while he was young, he’ll say, “You didn’t do anything, Mom. You didn’t go back to work until I was in high school.”
I push back from the desk, stand up. This is claptrap and garbage, and I’m not buying into it.
Except it’s what runs through my head almost every day, in almost the same exact words. Am I busy with purpose or just busy? Am I smothering my kids? Sure, I love sewing Zoey’s clothes, and the two of us have more fun at the fabric store than just about anywhere else, but what happens when she gets older and wants real store-bought clothes? What happens when Samuel is old enough to bike himself to his activities and friends’ houses? Those days aren’t so far away. Will he, in a jam, tell his friends, with their lawyer and doctor moms, My mom can take us to the movies. Don’t worry; she doesn’t do anything?
Corn poops are a thing, I learn by the end of the day, and they are no joke. I mean, they should absolutely be a joke, and after I catch up on the last four seasons of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I’ll probably find they already are. But after finding no coffee in the entire Mason kitchen of the Mason family, and knowing I’m going to need Fritos stat or I’m going to get accosted in my bosoms again, I grab the toddler, bundle her into ladybug boots and a raincoat, and head for the biggest grocery store on this side of town. It’s a giant fluorescent nightmare that sells everything for at least a third less than it would cost elsewhere—except the wine, which is always half-off and as such has become part of my weekly routine since having kids. Here, produce is loose in huge cardboard bins that lean and bend precariously. The deli meat is all presliced and wrapped in plastic increments of a half pound, something that could have happened this morning or six weeks ago. Most shocking: in the back left corner by the corn dog selection, they have a chest freezer with bulk chicken nuggets you take out with a big plastic scoop. But the deals!
Anna Joy is completely unfamiliar with the place, and the minute I set her on her feet in the store, she runs for it, a fat little bowling ball in a raincoat rolling down the huge aisles toward the endcap of Cheez-Its, aiming for a strike. She careens between carts, and I get a couple of glowers until I realize—oh yeah—this is my kid, for all intents and purposes. I’m the mother of a toddler again. It’s up to me to go chase her down. One of the glarers is a mother with two kids under three sitting in the front of the cart, something I completely forgot about doing now that my littlest is eight. I scoop up Anna Joy and put her in the cart seat and clasp the buckles. She bursts into tears. “I want to be FREE!” she says dolefully.
I laugh at her. “Girl, I thought I was free until I realized you’d be home all day.”
She stops crying out of confusion.
“Anyway, there’s some good news for you, sweet dear,” I tell her. “I’m going to do something I wish I’d done with my kids. I mean, your siblings. I’m going to bribe you to be good and make my life easier, and I’ll feel no guilt about it whatsoever.”
She looks at me, still mystified.
“How do you feel about cheap plastic toys, Anna Joy?”
She eyes me carefully. Suspiciously.
I lean to the left. As usual, next to the junk food displays there are toy risers running up the shelving like parenting IEDs. Closest to us are small stuffies with freakishly large rainbow-colored eyes. I grab a kitten.
“KITTEN!” she shouts.
“This kitty’s name is”—I look at the tag—“Meowsie. Meowsie, meet Anna Joy.” Anna Joy tentatively takes the cat. “Meowsie is yours if you’re good. You can hold him the whole time we are in the store, and if you are so nice and make shopping fun for us both, then you can keep him when we leave. And if you are naughty, I will put the kitty back.”
She clutches Meowsie close to her chest. “I’m very good,” she tells me.
“I believe it. I’ve met your siblings. Now, where in this store can we find espresso beans and one-hundred-calorie packs of Starburst?”
Together, we wander through the massive store, emptier on a Monday than it is on the weekends, when I usually end up here, but still well populated. Anna Joy doped up on bug-eyed Meowsie is so good and angelic that people stop me to tell me loudly how sweet and beautiful she is. I think of Linus and Bridget, both of them clingy and loud at this age. People never stopped me at the store to say, Wow, that pair of barnacles howling and scratching your face while you try to shop sure are sweet and beautiful.
That said, no one would have been able to catch a word with me anyway back then, even if they’d tried. I’ve never had more than an hour free to get through a grocery shop start to finish, and I normally zip like lightning from item to item on a list sorted by aisle, like a cast member of Supermarket Sweep.
By contrast, on this trip I walk down aisles I’ve never visited just because I can. Pets—who knew they sold actual betta fish here? Sports drinks. Miles of them. And look! This is where they hide those sugary Frappuccinos in glass bottles I thought you could only get at the gas station. I put a four-pack in my cart, then open the first and slug down a quarter of it before we even pull into the next row.
When we finally leave the store, I have bought seventy dollars’ worth of easy-prep groceries, plus a few more weaning bribes for while I am in Celeste’s body. I put it all on Celeste’s credit card because I have no idea if she has any cash on the debit card. In fact, since she doesn’t work, the Masons may be downright poor. Or maybe, since she doesn’t work, they have to be downright rich? I have no idea what her real financial situation is, come to think of it. Meowsie costs a mere $3.99, worth every penny for my sanity, but since I’m not sure where Celeste stands, I buy the bribe separately with cash, holding on to the receipt for the rest to pay her back later as needed.
The money considerations get me thinking. I have always sort of assumed that despite race, religion, or creed, everyone in Birchboro Hills is generally like us financially: a huge mortgage, one good salary, one crap salary, and very expensive kids. The math on that kind of lifestyle means we look rich—a big house, two cars, fancily clad kids in any activities they desire, and takeout five days a week. Yet we feel poor—no money left over to travel, no time to sleep, no energy for sex, books, hobbies, home cooking, the stuff that makes you stop and enjoy being alive from time to time.
But then, maybe not everyone lives like this. Celeste can clearly afford to fix up her house—something out of reach for us. She doesn’t have to work, which means whenever she’s tired, she can rest. She can cook at home at her leisure—the freezer is proof that she enjoys it—and the stack of books on her nightstand says a lot about her intellectual growth as well.
And then there’s the upcoming gala.
What did Hugh say about me buying myself some clothes? He’s been trying to get me to spend some money for months? Maybe the Masons are loaded.
I pay the store to load my bags into the car for me. Then I buckle in the little cooing creature and her rainbow-eyed cat and say, “Anna Joy, sweetheart, Mommy wants to go shopping for a new look.”
She looks up. “But shorts for Zoey,” she says. “And I want shorts too.”
I smile at her. “Macy’s, then. Shorts for everyone and a couple outfits for Mommy and, if you’re very sweet, maybe some cute new something for you too.”
Her eyes grow huge. “Can I keep the kitty?”