Fringe benefits

March 23,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

This is L.'s second week of Spring Break. My parents are coming into town today to salvage the week. They are, for us, like those storybook heroes, riding in on white horses, to save the day. Ever since L. started elementary school, we’ve been juggling the two-week “track-outs” twice/year. Luckily, our schedules are flexible enough to allow for some creative juggling, but it’s stressful. Day camps for L. are never an option, because he refuses to even think about going. I suppose if we absolutely, positively couldn’t cope without sending him to a day camp during track-out weeks we’d do it, and he would muddle through. Maybe. But we’re always infinitely grateful when grandparents can ride in to save the week like this, during weeks like this. 

On Tuesday, though, not having any childcare arrangements in place for L., I left my office hours and picked him up from Scott’s office and took him to lunch. After lunch we drove to his favorite children’s museum. There’s an activity room there with a huge ball pit and an elaborate pulley/track system overhead that dumps into a giant piggy bank suspended above the ball pit. Kids can fill the buckets, climb up the metal stairs, and dump the balls onto the tracks leading to the pig. When the pig gets filled with enough balls, a trapdoor in the pig’s stomach opens and the balls cascade down into the ball pit.

Anyway, it is one of L.’s favorite places in the whole world, this activity room. He will literally spend two hours engaged in the business of gathering balls, climbing up to the metal tracks, and sending the balls tumbling into the pig’s belly. Two hours. When L. was a little guy, he used to immerse himself in just those types of activities at home (although, sadly, we didn’t have a giant pig suspended from the ceiling at our house). One of his favorite games as a small child was to fill up some big bag with all numbers of odds and ends while he absorbed himself in an ongoing narrative about what he was doing. Then he would take the bag and dump the contents somewhere, and begin again. I used to find this both charming, and really frustrating, since I inevitably was the one who had to gather up all those little odds and ends and return them to their rightful places.

Whoever designed the exhibit at the children’s museum also had the sensitive foresight to set up a little pretend pizza café in one corner, complete with tables. And someone also decided it would be good to make WiFi available throughout the museum. Yesterday, I set my laptop up at one of the café tables and spent the THREE hours we were there working and writing. Every now and then L. would appear with his bucket, stoop to gather balls and then disappear again. Roughly every ten minutes or so there would be a click and a whoosh! and a waterfall of colored balls would spill out, amid shrieks of delight from the kids around and in the pit—then L. would appear, happy at his handiwork, bucket in hand, and it would begin again—there was a soothing rhythm to it all, really. I felt a little self-conscious, at first, at the pizza cafe table with my laptop and books and papers spread across the table. All the other moms and dads there were racing around after their small kids (since it was a weekday school day the rest of the public schools were in session and L. was the only 10-year old there), and running interference. There I was, seemingly without a care in the world, working away at my laptop. I felt like people thought I was a disengaged mom, though, one of those moms who other moms judge, because I’m letting my kid play by himself; the mom at the playground with the cellphone, who is too busy to push their kid in the swing. Every now and then someone else’s small child felt badly for me and brought me a felt pizza, complete with felt toppings. A little boy with blond curls brought me a tall glass of pretend ice tea.

"Leave that lady alone," a mom said to her little pizza waiter-in-the-making. "She's not here to play." And she drew out the word "play" in a way that made me wince.

Sometimes I miss my kids’ toddler days with a force that hurts. I miss their diapered bottoms, and their earnest dimpled hands and how they needed me, in ways they don’t need me now. I miss strollers and diaper bags and little containers of Cheerios and sippy cups. Sometimes I look back on the days when L. was two, or three, and the landscape of our days seemed so less complicated, so light—there were no wrong turns—or at least, if there were, I didn’t see them and they were small detours, not big enough to matter. Sometimes when I’m at the museum I envy the other moms, the ones who are still playing customer at the pretend lemonade stand, or the pizza café, the way I used to do when L. was small.  But yesterday I didn’t envy them at all. I didn’t miss my toddler kids. I felt what can only be described as a sense of satisfied entitlement, really--the entitlement older moms of older kids feel. Hey, I wanted to tell that other mom. I've earned my right to sit at this pretend pizza cafe

I've earned my felt pizza. I've earned my pretend ice tea.

And one day, you will too.