“What did you think this was going to be like before you started, and then what was it really like?” is Noah Adams’ fallback interview question, according to “This American Life’s” comic book “How to Make Radio.” The question is supposed to evoke two stories and a lesson. In re-reading the essay below, I realized that this rule held true for me. “Flying Objects” is about wanting to be a mom, and what it is actually like to be a mom.
Now my babies are growing up. My freelance photography business is ten years old, and both of my sons will be in school in the fall.
In 2002, I photographed a mother and son decorating a pumpkin at a local fall festival. For the first time, I wanted to be the mom instead of the journalist. Six years later, I got my chance.
It was sweatier and more stressful than I imagined.
When my then two-year-old son and I arrived at the festival, I immediately had to visit the port-a-potty since I was pregnant with his little brother. I narrowly kept him from opening the door and exiting. After that I thought I could relax. I took him to the hiking trails, envisioning us happily walking through nature.
I failed to account for the cigarette butt can, the busy road, the machinery shed, the steep embankment, and the possible poison oak, all more attractive than the open grassy areas. There were three paths in the forest, but none were less traveled enough for my son. He repeatedly tried to run off course down to the rocky stream, with me in literal hot pursuit.
This anecdote should end with some morsels of parenting redemption, a few cute moments in the “and that made it all worthwhile vein” — maybe the skinny spider we watched, or the fighting squirrels, or the joy of sharing the woods’ cool peace with my son. Those things all happened. But after our outing he refused to nap. He yelled from his room, in bed early for beaning me with his shoe as I drove.
What I didn’t know before I became a parent is how badly things could go, and how often.
I’m still glad we went.
I’m still glad I’m a mom.
Now that my second son is two, I realize that my older son was just being a toddler. And that some kids are easier than others. Because three and a half years later, at the same location, the struggle was still with him, and not his little brother.
It should have been fun: a pancake breakfast, a walk in the woods. I expected smiles and exuberance from my energetic boys. Instead, while his little brother happily trotted along a mulch path, my older son threw himself down with sad fury, throwing an extended red-faced screaming tantrum because he inexplicably wanted to go home.
After some time, we managed to move forward, and both boys ran gleefully along the trails. The morning was magical, even better than I hoped. The air was fresh and cool, the sky and lake a beautiful misty gray. The combination of rocks, sticks and water thrilled the boys.
At one point my older son asked me to carry his sweatshirt, and I told him to tie it around his waist. He looked at me very directly and I took a photograph, later wondering if his expression was irritation with me for not doing as he asked.
Reality started to creep back in on the drive home. He threw a peanut at my head from the back seat.
By the end of the day, fatigue replaced my morning confidence. My younger son gleefully hit me in the face with a flashlight as I read a story. That’s when my focus shifted to How Many More Minutes Before Daddy Comes Home. Tears and chaos double every 20 minutes after 5pm, like food poisoning bacteria.
Sometimes kids’ bad behavior is just something to be endured, dealt with, and forgotten, like the exuberant flashlight whack. Sometimes there is more to it. Later that week I found out what my older son already knew. Things were going badly at school, and had been for some time. I saw new meaning behind his strange tantrum, and his facial expression in my photograph.
The incident reminded me of my 19th birthday. I went out to dinner with my parents. We went to my favorite restaurant. I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t fun, why no one was laughing, why everyone seemed quiet. Soon after, they separated.
When I met with my son’s teacher, it was the first time I realized that I didn’t know everything about his world. Before he attended school, he had his private imagination, but now real things were happening, with real people, and I wasn’t there.
As a parent I am forced to realize, again and again, how little real control I have over the choices of another person.
As an almost-forty-year-old, I have to concede that careful planning and sheer force of will are not enough to control my future. I expected to have a husband with thighs bigger than mine, a life in San Francisco and children whose perfect behavior testified to my superior parenting. I am married to a thin man in the Midwest, raising boys that one grandma calls “pistols” and the other grandma calls “busy.”
Even when you get what you want, it is different than you expect. I thought parenting would be about physical and emotional caretaking. I pictured giving baths, making meals, reading stories and helping with homework. I discovered that it was also about dealing with the complex thoughts and feelings of people different from me. My sons are young children and I have authority over them, but they are also unique individuals, complete people in their own right.
The reality of being a mother is so much harder, and so much better, than I imagined. The blows to the head, literal and metaphorical, can’t erase the beauty, or the memory, of two boys running for sheer joy, delighting in being outside, and in being brothers.
Galleries where photos above appear: The Bubble, Domestic Life: Portrait collection and Brothers collection
This American Life/ Make Radio