Back To Center
My six-year old son, J asks me if we can make pancakes before school. He’s overslept, and we don’t have time for pouring, cracking, whisking, grilling, and eating. It is a cereal-or- yogurt morning.
“Sure,” I say. My agreement something like apology, an attempt to prove that I am a good mother. We walk to the kitchen together.
Until recently, I had been mom #1, the kiss-the-cut mom, the morning-snuggles mom, the drive-to-school mom, the comfort-me mom, the make-the-lunch mom, the stay-home-when-he’s- sick mom because I had a flexible work schedule when my partner, Cindy did not. She was often gone from 7:30am to 6pm, and sometimes later, working, exercising, and (for a time) coaching high school girls’ basketball.
Now things have changed. Cindy has taken a sabbatical from teaching and no longer coaches, and I’m working full-time while pursuing a master’s degree. I’ve been spending so many hours gone or behind a closed door, while J inches toward the age of seven out of my view. He and Cindy watch Power Rangers and read Harry Potter. She makes his meals. They go the park to meet friends while I work and study. And while I’m grateful for the opportunity to pursue this degree and for Cindy’s support, I miss J and the way things used to be. Now, Cindy knows better than I do what J wants in his lunch. When I try to help, I add the chips he used to like or the wrong flavor of yogurt to his lunchbox, and my work has to be redone.
I tell myself I am modeling goal setting and persistence for J by going back to school, but often I fear I’m modeling absence—or worse—removal.
Together, we add vanilla, flour, sugar, baking powder, vegetable oil, milk, and eggs to the mix and forcefully whisk until it’s smooth. I grease the pan and pour tiny circles of batter onto the hot griddle, and J takes a seat at the table to thumb through a Highlights magazine while I finish the job. Though he has not asked for this, I secretly shake rainbow sprinkles into the circles of still-wet batter on the griddle, a gesture I hope will make up for my absences. We used to cook together more often, and J liked adding “secret ingredients” to the pancake mix—several varieties of sprinkles, chocolate chips, and, on occasion, nerds.
I present him with the special pancake, dotted with the melted rainbow sprinkles, expecting him to be thrilled by the surprise, expecting the sprinkles to tip us back to our familiar center like a secret handshake.
“Thanks,” he says and, after a silence, “but next time, can you please check with me before you add sprinkles?”
I turn quickly to hide my face, too-fast tears burn at the edges of my eyes. I am feeling tired and extra-tender and unsure of myself and my decisions to pursue this degree when it takes me away from him, from us. The tears are, of course, not about the sprinkles. They are about my feeling that I’ve failed (and continue to fail) to make up for my absences.
The next night we go for a family walk at sunset. J is filled with energy and chatter—joy, I think, this is joy. He runs ahead, climbs up the fence to reach the neighbor’s horses’ noses.
Early in the spring, he had named them “Listener,” “Listener Jr.,” and “Throw Up.” He calls out to them when they are too far away to reach. He swats away the flies, talks affectionately to the horses, then jumps down from the fence and heads off through the grass and into a secret forest hideout lined with brush and stumps.
After all the energetic bursts, J settles in quietly beside me on the path. I shorten my strides to match his. I feel his small hand slide into mine. I keep my grip loose and comfortable, even if I want to squeeze. I know his hand better than any other hand in the world, I think to myself.
He and I walk hand in hand for three blocks, all the way back home.
In the kitchen later on, I am washing dishes. He approaches me wordlessly and plants dozens of kisses on my elbow and right arm, as streams of water drip from my fingertips and into the sink. I turn and smile at him.
“What did I do to deserve all of these kisses?” I ask. “Being Mommy,” he responds.
Being I think. Just Being.
Nicole Pisecki is a Denver-based writer, educator, and editor. She serves as a senior instructor for the University of Colorado Denver’s English Department and edits nonfiction for Copper Nickel. Her writing has been featured in Longreads, Hippocampus Magazine, Literary Mama, Gertrude Press, the Colorado Review blog, and the Brevity blog. Nicole is actively working on an essay collection and is very close to finishing an MFA in creative writing at Colorado State University.