During the summer of 1969, when my mother was not yet 30, she drove
across the country in a station wagon with her three young children, two
Shetland sheepdogs and three cats, one of whom was about to give birth. My
father had already started his new job in Philadelphia; my mother was
driving us east to Ohio, where we kids would be left in the care of
relatives while our parents were house-hunting.
Aggressively optimistic, my mother promoted the week-long trip as a
great adventure. I realize now that she had no other option; her only
choice was to whip us into an enthusiastic frenzy and hope that the spirit
of fun would carry us through a grueling week in close quarters. In those
days before car seats, kids could roll all over unrestricted, so my mother
put the back seat down and made the car into a big playroom. She padded the
floor with blankets and lined the edges with board games and coolers. The
cats were contained in little mesh-sided carriers, but the dogs wandered
the interior, stealing unattended sandwiches and pressing their damp noses
against my mother's neck as she drove. And wouldn't you know it -- every
single day something truly awful happened.
On our first day out, somewhere near Winnemucca, Nev., a freak flash
flood washed out the highway.
While crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert, a salt storm kicked up,
thoroughly obscuring the road, sandblasting the paint from our car and
overturning a livestock truck full of hysterical hogs.
In Denver, my mother awoke in the middle of the night in a hotel room to
discover that my cat was giving birth in her suitcase, on top of all of her
clothes save for the grubby outfit she'd worn that day.
West of Lawrence, Kan., the midday sky closed up and went black. Just
as the radio station announced the tornado warning, we noticed that traffic
in the opposite lane of highway squealed to a halt on the shoulder, and all
of the cars turned around and began heading east, like us, at high speed.
We could see the funnel behind us, and my mother's voice was brittle as she
outlined detailed instructions for each of us in case she changed her mind
and decided to pull into the ditch rather than outrun the tornado (which
she did, at 115 miles per hour).
We spent an entire day hopelessly lost and driving around and around the
maze of freeways in St. Louis. My mother drove uselessly on,
staring straight ahead, tears dribbling down the line of her jaw.
By the last day, we were closing in on our cousins in Dayton, Ohio.
Inspired by the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, we campaigned for McDonald's. At
first my mother said no, but finally we wore her down and she bought us
dinner at the drive-through window.
I was enjoying my fries and prying the lid off my strawberry milkshake, humming noisily and perched cross-legged right behind the
driver's seat when my mother turned swiftly around, her unwashed hair
flying out from under a sweaty bandanna. "DON'T," she threatened, her jaw
clenched, her face contorted in a desperate attempt to maintain her
patience, pointing a long, skinny finger at me,
I snapped the milkshake lid back onto the cup and, chastened, sucked
daintily on the straw. But after a while I just sort of forgot, and as I
pried the lid off my milkshake to dip my French fries into it, the cup
somehow exploded, sending a pink sticky tsunami of milkshake toward my
mother's head. In the rear view mirror I watched her eyes grow wide and
black when the cold sting of milkshake began dripping down her back.
For an hour she raved, and we were blown back by the force of her fury
and frustration. We escaped the car as if it were on fire as soon as we
pulled to a stop in front of my uncle's house, and I peeped through a
window curtain in the living room and watched my mother, who was muttering
to herself as she stood in the driveway rinsing herself off with the
This, you could argue, was an extreme case of maternal claustrophobia.
But don't natural disasters -- spilled milkshakes and hogs, flooding and
bloody laundry -- happen in humbler scale on a daily basis? Making it all
the more necessary, for the preservation of one's mental health, to get
away from your kids once in a while.
And getting away from the children, as logistically complex as that can
be, is merely part of the struggle -- the rest of it is getting away from
one's daily domestic albatrosses. The urge to accomplish something, once
the baby's napping or the big kids are off at school or the baby sitter or
your spouse has arrived, is a powerful one. Most of the time, it's
imperative that you do accomplish something. It becomes all too easy
to dismiss taking a break as an unaffordable luxury.
But we're not talking about grand scale abandonment here -- merely an hour
of privacy. Just as we were all advised in the newborn period to "sleep
when the baby sleeps," try doing nothing when the baby sleeps or
when some other adult takes over for you.
As much as you might like to get caught up with your reading or weeding
or laundry folding, resist temptation and take a walk alone, or lie on your
back in warm grass for an hour. Or take a bath, if you won't be
interrupted. At first you might still hear the ticking in your head, but soon
you could find yourself swept into the movement of the clouds, or noticing
the ambient bird noises you rarely hear. You might find you're finally able
to finish the thoughts in your head, or you might find yourself losing
track of where you are altogether. You might find yourself sitting in a
wooden chair in the middle of a wide green lawn in Pennsylvania, watching
shadows bend the fading light under a vast old walnut tree, and in the
distance your three children are tumbling out of a car and approaching you,
shyly, and you won't think of how beleaguered you felt the last time you
saw them but, instead, you'll swing your arms out to hold your sweet kids,
who make you feel lucky to wake up every morning, who are running toward
you now and who are relying on you to show them what it feels like to be