The Maternal Barometer

May 6, 2013

With the exception of fast days and the occasional Shabbes when, Lord help me, I forget to put up the urn, I always begin my mornings with a cup of coffee. It is a total sensory ritual. The aroma. The taste. The large ceramic cup that warms the span of both of my hands. And let’s not disregard what the punch of caffeine does to my poorly-rested brain.

A simple pleasure, yes, but very little in this world makes me happier. 

Though I’m perhaps less alert before I’ve enjoyed the full cup, I’m not grumpy in the morning and need no powering up time. I go from zero to sixty, heading downstairs while everyone else is still asleep, I prepare a take-out menu that includes three breakfasts, four lunches, and one dinner, plus snacks, while my hot latte looks on. If there’s time, I’ll run down to the basement and fold some laundry, then back up to empty the dishwasher. 

My maternal barometer at this point remains in a peaceful state. I’m feeling productive and am reasonably certain that the immediate future will be agita-free. I sense, I really do, that I may possibly be in control of the chaos, for the moment anyway, and I’m smiling like those suddenly regular folks in the probiotic yogurt commercials. 

What comes to mind, however, is what my Hungarian co-workers used to say when I lived in Budapest: The Americans are smiling because they have no idea what is really going on. Indeed, my biggest challenges are still in bed, which means the jury is still out on what kind of day I am going to have. 

Like a stealth warrior, I gingerly climb the steps and proceed to door number one. At this precise moment, I don’t yet know if the prize is a dud or a dream kitchen. So I pause and breathe deeply, using the Lamaze techniques that did me no good during the birth of any of my children. I enter and head towards my eldest, tripping over piles of laundry and shin guards and who knows what else along the way. After all, it is still dark at this hour.

Quietly, I announce that it is time to wake up. And then I wait. A peaceful response from my eldest – even a short, soft grunt — bodes well. Next I turn to awaken my middle son, who might offer a gentle “I’m up.” I exit the room feeling good, confident in my parenting and grateful for my loving relationship with my children. I giddily hand off lunches and sometimes even get a hug. I now feel like a gazillion dollars. I’m so happy that heck, I don’t even need to finish the coffee.

It only gets better when my youngest, who sleeps like a burrito tightly wrapped in blankets and sheets atop a large stuffed dog I purchased years ago during a fit of working mother guilt, wakes up on his own. When he shuffles downstairs already dressed – I mean in school clothes and shoes, not his boxers – then I know it’s going to be a great day. The stars have aligned and Mashiach is imminent and world peace is on its way. I take a sip of coffee just to be certain I’m not dreaming.

Now the morning can go the other way, too. If, when I head upstairs, the teenagers grunt loudly (Leave me alone) or rattle off a list of frustrating requests (I need an obscurely-colored, rarely available item for school – today — and what do you mean you don’t have one handy my bus leaves in fifteen minutes?), well, honestly, it spells trouble. These disagreeable encounters cause tension, which foment a quarrel between boys who would rather be sleeping and their mom, who would prefer to be sipping her hot latte.

Suddenly, everyone is in a huff and the sun has not yet come up. I am by now entirely unhinged. All of the lattes in the world — with the exception perhaps of one I might drink with my husband in Florence – cannot wash this away. I feel icky and sad, flagellating myself for not saying the right thing or for endeavoring to talk to them at all.

If on top of this excitement, the youngest refuses to emerge from the burrito and then cannot find his shoes because he’s tossed them somewhere, the tension intensifies. I suggest gently that one shoe is likely in his laundry basket and the other on the book shelf, and I’m often correct, but he is also determined to be right. We disagree and I’m derailed another rung. 

And the guilt! Oy! Surely, if I did not work at all and devoted myself entirely to keeping house, perhaps his room wouldn’t be in a condition conducive to shoes gone missing in the first place and I’d be back to a state of calm.

Soon enough, though, everyone has gone about their day. The house is suddenly, eerily quiet, if not quite ready for its close-up. I sit down to work, first considering whether this morning was the worst of our lives, whether a spat over missing yarmulkas or forgotten permission slips will set our relationships off course. If we argue over such silliness, will they care for me when I’m old and infirm?

On cue, my phone dings. It’s a text, one of the older boys asking for something – money or permission to go a friend’s house – but I see that it begins with “Mommy please.” Suddenly, it doesn’t matter what the request is for. That “Mommy” has straightened me back up and put a smile on my face. They’ve forgotten the morning’s blip, if they thought of it at all. I struggle to do the same, to reign in my innate sense of drama. 

Time passes quickly and I make it through as much of my agenda as I can before heading out for school pick-ups. Like a film scene rolled in reverse, here we go again. The last out is the first home, and I test the waters as I do in the morning, gauging what kind of afternoon I’m going to have. As the rest file in, everything from the reaction to what I’ve made for dinner to the way they’ve answered my “hello” can set me off again. They are either teenagers or nearly so, and I’m a walking barometer, a too sensitive one I think my boys will say.

Before long, it is already past my bedtime. The evening’s success or failure – read: my mood — depends entirely on the boys’ suppression or expression of sibling rivalry. As I weigh their impact on my daily life, I catch a glimpse of my morning coffee, still there, forlorn on the kitchen counter. It is cold and undrinkable at this point. Still, it is a reminder that hope will brew anew tomorrow morning. And perhaps, just possibly, I will get to drink it while it’s still hot.