Motherhood: The Default Setting
Written Spring 2007
Written Spring 2007
My default setting is “Motherhood.” It is in the “locked” position and takes clever technical maneuvering to change the setting. Like, sending my almost independent children away for long periods of time to faraway places so that I don’t have to feed them or edit their English papers. Only then can I unlock the setting for a few days…survive on salads, soup, wine and work. Until they return – when I predictably head for the grocery store, ashamed of the depleted refrigerator, and rev up the nagging about the state of their bedroom and the cat box and hover over what is going into their mouths. “Don’t drink sodas. Please. I didn’t raise you to drink soda.” This kind of hovering sometimes even keeps me from working, which I do from home, in full view of too many of their activities. And, working is not optional.
I am 53 years old, working hard for a late-blooming career I love, but today I was involuntarily drawn back into the drama of motherhood: where will my 17-year old daughter go to college? Earlier this week, we returned from a two-day pilgrimage to Madison, Wisconsin in hopes of finding the Holy Grail of College Educations at the University of Wisconsin. It’s affordable. It’s highly ranked. Sounds promising and easy. I drove the 5 hours there and the 5 hours home listening to the Dixie Chicks singing about how they are still “mad as hell” and we both got sufficiently worked up over the heated lyrics, joining in on the chorus. Until, we couldn’t stand it any more. Then I turned on All Things Considered and she took a nap.
We hiked around the campus of 40,000 students for 2.5 hours in wind and cold. We drank more than our share of cappuccino, observing the packed house of slightly alternative college students doing whatever they do in coffee shops, the whole setting looking like an ad for Mac laptops. She bought a UW trucker’s hat and felt right at home in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans. Things at Madison are “chill,” according to her. I think I know what that means and I had to agree, although I would have used a different adjective. I was served wine at the local Mexican restaurant out of a massively over-sized wine glass. If this is what they mean when they say it is a drinking school, I am officially worried. This wine glass was larger than the water pitcher and we have photos to prove it.
I have wondered if the school is too big for her, that she will get “lost,” too much anonymity. So, we visited a class, the large lecture with over a hundred sleepy-looking students called “Communication and Human Behavior.” The professor asked a question – one of those things you might know even if you hadn’t read the material. No one responded and that annoyed her. She raised her hand, was called on and answered the question. Clearly, she’ll be fine at Madison. We thought it was settled.
Finally, I can get back to work.
Then today, she heard from five more colleges. She applied to this vast number of colleges with the philosophy “Cast a wide net,” because she needed to increase her chances of a strong financial aid package. And she got in to all of them. We are mostly just stunned. And so, once again, I am derailed by demands for decisions, travel plans, discussions about preferences, financial aid, climate and fashion at each of the said schools.
I have work to do. I support my children and myself. I have magazine stories I should be pitching. I should be at the tile store, selecting tile for my client’s bathroom. I should be filing papers and balancing checking accounts and doing my job. I should be working. But I am so absorbed by the energy surrounding her right now – some of it flattering, much of it overwhelming – that I cannot concentrate and I see some modest need for keeping her focused on one step at a time, except that I am not very good at that myself. There are calls to make about campus visits, flights to book, budgets for all this to consider, bosses to email for time off (for her), and friends to tell. We walk around the lake together to talk it out. I should be returning emails.
But how many more days will I have to walk the lake with Isabelle? She is 17, a senior, leaving home in a few months and never coming back in the same way. How many more times will she show me the prom dress she thinks is cute and what do I think, should she buy it on the Nordstrom website? How many times will we get silly taking photos of the mammoth wine glass at the rinky-dink Mexican restaurant? How many more times will she ask me if I think there is pork fat in the refried beans, meaning she cannot eat it, the vegetarian that she is and has been since she was five? I will miss her. For three years, I have missed my son, Zan, who went to D.C. for college, to Paris and back, and who, thankfully, still emails me his college papers for review on occasion, but is really gone for good, I can tell.
I am a mother first and foremost and I don’t know how to stop it. The setting is genetically and psychically in a locked position. This is costing me money, the money I need to buy the prom dress and pay for her college tuition bills that will begin to arrive soon. But, I wouldn’t miss this for anything.