My Child, My Backpack And The Long Days Of Motherhood



When my daughter Lucy was three, I decided to get intentional about her education.

I wanted to homeschool long-term, but knew I was not an ideal candidate: I like quiet, order, and long-range projects. I also felt a little cuckoo stuck at home. With 18 hours a day to kill, I counted the days until fifth grade.

After a bunch of research, I leaned in the airy-fairy direction for learning: lots of play, encouraging Lucy to follow her interests. However, self-directed learning goes slowly in five-minute increments. I needed a little structure.

Me being me, I made a spreadsheet.

I labeled the days of the week, and then in each square, I printed a subject area. Underneath I made lists of activities under each heading from books, websites, and Montessori catalogues.

I was ready. I had been flexible and strategic.

I hoped the plan would fix me.

I longed to homeschool my daughter. I had grown up mostly without my siblings, my father worked in other cities for most of my childhood, even my mom had often been gone when I got home from school. I so desperately wanted to be together with my kids. It was a bone-deep ache.

But I did not trust myself. I did not trust my patience and maternal goodness to last long without a plan. I did not trust myself to be kind to my kid.

If I couldn’t hack it, I’d enroll her in school rather than destroy our relationship. But then my dream of all-day togetherness would be over.

I didn’t trust myself, but I wanted to. I wanted to grow into the kind of mom who could handle being with young children all day. The plan was a start.

But what I did not admit to myself was this: I needed to be that mom now. I sensed something inside me was going to give if the hours did not get shorter.

Day one of my plan: “science.”

We built a play city using masking tape on the carpet for roads, and blocks for buildings. It was fun for both of us.


The next day, I told Lucy we could choose something from the “math” activities. I gave her six options.

“I wanna build another city!” she said.

“But that was yesterday, sweetheart,” I said firmly. “We’ll choose a counting activity today. It’ll be fun!” The idea of building a city over and over again filled me with deep foreboding. This was why I had the plan.

I got out a book of toddler math games. She ignored me. She fetched the masking tape; I tried to tempt her with counting beans.

“Just try it,” I said.

She threw the beans on the floor.

That’s when I realized my chipper spreadsheet was not going to save me.

I had created it because I was in a wilderness of time and small person needs, and I needed a map. I needed to quantify the output of our togetherness. I needed to get from morning to afternoon without banging my head against the wall.

All of a sudden, I realized the plan was not going to do the trick, at least not as easily as I’d hoped.

I had a choice to make. Would I give in to the resentment that even now was ready to drown me? Or would I choose kindness now, even if I didn’t think I’d be capable of it long-term?

I looked at Lucy. Her face had lit up with interest in her project.

She caught my gaze and was beside me in a second. “Help me, Mama!” She tugged on my sleeve.

I realized, with a sickening click, that this entreaty was what I’d hoped for when I started homeschooling. I wanted her engaged, and I wanted to be there, engaged with her.

She was engaged. Right now. Why wasn’t I?

Why wasn’t her engagement good enough for me? Why did I need to improve on it, add to it, redirect it, orchestrate it?

Why couldn’t I enter into it, instead?

I almost felt like weeping. The days were so long. I longed to be able to organize her like I’d organized all those activities on the spreadsheet, moving subjects and ideas around with no resistance.

I wanted to be in control.

I gritted my teeth and knelt down on the carpet with her. I picked up the masking tape, and grudgingly, with my face plastered with a smile I did not yet mean, I spooled out a length of tape and put it on the floor.

We built the city for another five minutes until she lost interest.

As I pulled up the tape, I realized, with a deep grief, that I had to let go of the plan. I knew my daughter, and I knew myself. She’d resist that plan every day; we’d butt heads if I insisted on it. We were both too stubborn.

I sighed, and mentally erased the tidy lines in the spreadsheet. I let go of the activities, the days, the hours, and the control, and handed the imaginary paper to my daughter.

I surrendered. Not always without gritting my teeth, no. But I surrendered to her toddlerhood.

I surrendered, because I wanted to stay with her.

But being with her cost something. It cost me my plans and my sense of control. It cost me a sense that our days were orderly and well-executed, that I was a fabulously creative parent. It cost me any illusion that if I just tried harder, being with my child would come naturally.

It cost me the luxury of getting mad at a three-year-old about the length of the days.

Blocks cleaned, I took a deep breath. I felt like I had started on a long hiking trip á la Cheryl Strayed, with my child as my backpack. We were going through arid territory, and I had to depend on her, no fooling, to survive. I had to trust that I would find some well of patience inside me. I had to trust both of us.

I got up from the floor, and went in search of my precious child.

Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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