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jigsaw
by tori gallagher

The other day I met a super-mom. You know the kind I mean, the ones who are always fit and fashionably dressed. The ones who manage to raise healthy happy kids and cart them each week to soccer practice and piano lessons and gymnastics while simultaneously keeping the house, the pets, and the checkbook between PTA meetings and volunteer time at the animal shelter. Then in their free time, they sew all their children’s clothes, make their own soap, and with what’s left over they write a novel or build a playscape in the back yard that looks like the Ewok village in “The Return of the Jedi.” And somewhere in between all this, they manage to spend quality time with their kids and their partners and they don’t even have the good grace to chew their nails or have circles under their eyes.

Me, I just juggle. And sometimes I drop things. Sometimes a lot of things. And most of the time while I’m scrambling to catch things I’m wearing a ball cap to cover my sticking-up morning hair and a faded T-shirt because I haven’t gotten around to showering yet. Half the time I go to bed at night thinking, “Darn, I forgot to exercise today (and pretty much every day for the past four or five years),” or “I don’t think I’ve had a conversation with that shadowy person who helps me parent the children and who I’m supposed to be sharing my life with in days.” So it seems to me the question is: how do you manage being a parent and a homemaker and still maintain some sense of identity, some semblance of a relationship with your partner, and your own mental and physical health? Sometimes I don’t. I’m still not very graceful at this though I’ve practicing for years.

We have three sons, a teenager and two little guys, and much of my time is taken up in caring for them. I play many roles. I am swing-pusher, bubble-blower, craft-master, story-teller, word-speller, toy-fixer, brownie-baker, puppet-maker, game-player, soothsayer, picture-taker, finder-of-all-things-lost and referee to name a few. I am also cook, chauffeur, nurse, tutor and maid. And I am invariably good cop and bad cop, the one who begs, bullies and bribes them into doing their homework or bathing or going to bed or all the other things they don’t want to do every day. And every day after that.
The rest of my time I generally devote to my house. My partner’s mother says, “My house is here to serve me, not me it.” I still haven’t been able to figure out how to get it to do that. Now I know what she really means is that a house is just supposed to be a comfortable home for your family. You don’t have to become a slave to it. And that sounds like a sane and reasonable concept but I still don’t know how to put it into practice because the rest of my time I mostly spend like this: I clean things; I wash things, pick things up, put things away, throw other things away (sometimes these things are not technically trash, I’m just tired of picking them up), and I go around the house turning off electrical things that have no business being on. Then later in the day I do it all again. And then again.

If I’m lucky I might manage to find a few minutes to talk to my mom or a friend (or any grown-up) on the phone but there’s only so much interesting conversation you can get out of a day like that. Except when I try to FIX things. Then it gets interesting and slapstick. I usually end up breaking something else while trying to repair the broken thing and it invariably means several trips to Lowes and the purchase of various expensive tools. (My mother particularly enjoys these stories so I always make sure to call her when I have fixed something.)

Sometimes I feel like a jigsaw puzzle with a few of the pieces missing. Not an original metaphor but it works for me. When you get busy doing the same things over and over sometimes you forget to do other things and if you forget for too long, pieces fall out. Sometimes if you let the holes remain empty for too long, the pieces get lost. (I don’t know, maybe the dog ate them and urped them on the living room rug the next morning.) The point is, if you’re not careful the holes will become permanent. My goal is to become whole before the holes become permanent. To remain a happy person, an attentive partner, a dedicated parent, I need to be whole. But what do you do if some of the pieces did get lost (or masticated and regurgitated as previously mentioned)?

I believe they can be remade. And the cool part is, if you’re a homemaker like me and maybe feeling a little past your prime, you actually live with the solution. Listen to your kids. They are master puzzle makers—the things they notice, the questions they ask, the worlds they imagine. When you pay attention and participate, teach and play, your kids will bring you back quicker than any self-help book or stress-management strategy ever could. And it will be a newer, younger, funner self. (Yeah I said funner.)

The other night we let the kids stay up late and chase each other around the back yard with flashlights while my partner and I sat on the porch drinking coffee and having grown-up talk. George, who is nine, walked up with his hands cupped carefully near his belly, his face all shiny with sweat and excitement, and he slowly extended his arm and opened his hand. A firefly glowed in his palm. It seemed quite content to crawl around on his fingers for the next couple of minutes illuminating itself while he examined it. George is something of a firefly charmer. And it never fails to thrill him when they come to him and he always comes to show us. I can remember when things like catching fireflies and scooping polliwogs out of ditches with pickle jars and finding four-leaf clovers in the grass were magical. And when I see that look on one of our boys’ faces, I almost remember why.

When you have children, you get to relive that time when everything was new and mysterious if you’re open to it. Try to be a kid with your kids and all of a sudden, the time you spend sitting in traffic or standing in line or doing the chores melts away and a late summer day becomes a mystical thing full of the whine of cicadas and wind from far-away places and all manner of mysterious things to discover or imagine.

So maybe I don’t have to be super-mom. Maybe the next time I’m feeling like a drudge in a ball cap, I can just make time to go catch fireflies with our kids. Sometimes I can put off the housework and just be fun, make-believing, treasure-hunting, adventure-making, discovery parent (in a ball cap), and suddenly, all the holes get filled in and the day becomes whatever I want to make it.

Tori Gallagher lives in West Asheville with her partner, three sons, two dogs and a cat in a house that gets entirely too small in the winter. (But that’s another story.)

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