Saturday, August 22, 2009

Family Vacation? Help! Cries Mom, Send Moose and Squirrel!

At a particularly low moment yesterday, I whimpered to my seven-year-old son, "Would you stop talking? Please?"

"Mom, why do bees have sticky hair?"


"Because they use honey combs!"

It was Day 3 of a week-long stay on Cape Cod. Every day I'd been pulling my son Nick on the tagalong attached to my rental bike. Yesterday had included the dubious adventure of going to Martha's Vineyard by ferry—with the bike—for a grunting tour on dusty roads in close to 90-degree heat. Just a hint for the Obamas when they get here this weekend.

For those unfamiliar with children's bike equipage, a tagalong is a third wheel and handlebars that can be connected to an adult bike. That means pulling approximately 80 additional pounds, counting the small child who will inevitably squirm and, in Nick's case, pedal backwards.

By this low moment, we'd returned to Wood's Hole and made it off the ferry. Sweat was pouring down my face, but Nick perched happily on the tagalong, still talking at my back.

"Mom, in the Vietnam War, did people want to escape?"

"Not now!" I huffed. "Can't you see how much I'm working?"

God. I'd resorted to waspishness: Can't you see how much I'm [fill in the blank]? Evil Mom. Shouldn't I be thrilled that my child loves to ask questions? Serious questions about Vietnam, his birth country? Tough questions like "Why does China own Tibet?"

I am thrilled. Yet the brilliant monologues on the back of my bike are also mixed with fully dramatized scenes from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show—"What's your name, Natasha? Fatale, Fatale! Boris darlink, even Moose and Squirrel know that. Boris, you leetle squirt!"

I don't do well on family vacations. It takes at least a week of grueling exercise to slow down my mind. Or a week of complete solitude in a cabin miles from civilization. I seem to learn this every summer, as we spend a week at the Cape or on an island in Maine, my son a different age each time, and me longing for a few seconds to stare into space or to hike ten miles by myself. Instead I get my son full-throttle, with no child-care breaks and endless negotiations about what to do next, and me feeling horribly guilty.

Typical po-mo feminist mom. Typical entitled selfish ridiculous writer mom.

A few disclaimers: My husband enjoys the family time of these vacations. He also gives me breaks. However, some of our trips are tied to his work—as this one was to an academic conference—and so he's often gone during the day, while my son and I are left with each other. This is both good and bad.

During one of our treks on the Shining Sea Bikeway between Wood's Hole and North Falmouth, for instance, I was struck by the trail's beauty, even during a heat wave. Yet for me, cresting a small hill with a view over coastal marshland to the shore, it just wasn't the same with this exchange:

Me: "How gorgeous!"

Little chatterer: "Did you know Boris eats rutabagas?"

Me: "Look at the ocean."

LC: "What's a rutabaga?"

At one point, when I was negotiating a tricky turn into a beach parking lot with a UPS truck barreling micrometers from my son's exposed leg, the little chatterer said, "Mom, can I tell you the names for all those guys in my story, Kun the Turtle, his friends' names, remember you said we could figure out what would happen—"

"NOT NOW!" I cried. "Can't you see how much I'm concentrating?"

"Is it OK if I keep talking? You don't have to answer."

He kept talking. Within moments, I was answering.

When I complain about the little chatterer, my husband laughs. He's the one who usually gets stuck with the tagalong on our family bike rides.

"I just don't answer him," he says. "Pretty soon he shuts up."

He's a good guy, my husband, and a practical one. But I think I'm wired differently. Words make me respond—it's the writer in me, the pedant. Words are luscious things, not just chit-chat or time-fillers, and despite every drip of sweaty frustration with the chatterer these past few days, I know that words have weight for Nick, too. They are himself: Look at me, look at me, what do you think? Am I funny? Am I fabulous? Will you always love me? Can we get married? Will I be famous someday?

It's amazing, really, being privy to so much that's usually private in adults. Once, as I was wrestling with the bike locks, Nick tugged my arm.



"Why do people like me?"

I wanted to melt, and not from the heat. "Because you have great ideas," I said. "Because you're funny."

Nick kept looking up at me, as if unconvinced.

Because you're you, I thought.

OK, I love this child. Maybe expecting a family vacation to be a vacation is a fool's errand. Maybe vacation is the wrong word. It's more like moments of being—strings of shiny shells interspersed with stinking seaweed and whiny requests for ice cream.

On one of our first mornings here, Nick crept into bed with us, snuggling against me, and fell right back to sleep. I held my husband's hand, and he squeezed mine, as if transmitting his warmth to me and to Nick, who was silent for once, blessedly silent.

But I realized later, during another tagalong monologue—You know the thing I like best? Mom? Living!—that by listening to children, we affirm who they are. Listening is as important as touch; it gives them the freedom to shout and argue and annoy and bedazzle.

I try to explain what a rutabaga is or why China has colonized Tibet. I tell my little chatterer that I love life, too, although I'm not sure it would be my number-one choice if I had to live without the people I love.

LC says, "Yeah." Then he cracks a joke, putting on his Boris Badenov accent.

I know that I can't protect my son from all harm. But I can inoculate him against despair. And if I do—please, God, yes! I love living!—perhaps I can also inoculate myself.

This post originally appeared on Athena's Head, Martha's Open Salon blog.


  1. Martha, you will be so glad one day that you chronicled your thoughts. They are beautiful. My only response to this post is to treasure each moment with Nick and don't blink. I'm at the other end of my child rearing, and as I look back it went by just that quickly-in the blink of an eye.

    I enjoy your writing. Keep it up. ~Julie "L." an "old" friend from school.

  2. Dear Martha,
    I echo Anonymous's sentiments.My son is 36 now and these moments fly by before you know it. That is not to say I don't understand needing quiet, needing your own time, needing breaks. This is exquisite writing, by the way. So glad I found your blog.
    Karen Walker

  3. Oh, I know you are both right, Karen and Julie, I can already see the time flying by, and my son becoming more himself and less in need of telling me his every thought. It's one of those huge ironies of motherhood, I think, that some of the most frustrating moments come to be the things you treasure.

  4. Your frustration contributes the conflict that makes this an interesting story. I'm sure you deal with the frustration much better than I would, since I am generally a grumpy, grouchy, irritable (are you getting the idea yet?) sort of person. But your story makes me wonder whether I could see in the heat of the moment that the conflict is what make a good story, and what more could we hope for in life than many good stories?

  5. Ugh, 'm the same way Martha. The most guilty feelings came from when my wife took the kids out to get them away from me while I was writing my fathering column. What a self-absorbed writer.
    The point about listening so right-on. My son was an incredible babbler in the back seat of the car when he was learning to talk. He'd rattle off all these thoughts, then say, "Right?" I learned to just mumble "uh huh," and he'd go on with another insight, and say "Right?" This would go on for 15 minutes. He was happy to be having a conversation, and I was happy to not have to be "on" for the whole time.

  6. Yes, it's one of those great ironies for us writer types. While we're writing about our kids we're far too absorbed to interact with them(!)