Fairy Places

I collected fairies once. Somewhere along the last couple years, I sort of got over it. Tucked them into boxes, possibly to save for my niece if she gets into such things when she’s older. At thirteen and nearly-thirteen, our girls have outgrown magic and packed away their own fairy collections; dull practicality is rushing into its place at a frightening pace.

Everything is becoming lame. School is lame. All their parents are lame. Hiking and camping are definitely lame. As far as I can figure, electronics are the only not-lame things left in existence.

Except we found this place in Oregon, out in the middle of nowhere. We were looking for campsites along this dirt road; a near-hidden muddy turnoff caught our eye almost too late. I reversed a bit to make the turn and we edged down a muddy path toward a stream.

The whole drive was gorgeous-- tall pines, clean air, dappled sunlight-- but this was a pocket of even more perfect. Every living branch and fallen trunk enveloped in quiet moss; water curling around smooth stone islands and wandering into tiny waterfalls; hazy green light and some delicious unidentifiable smell.

“This is such a fairy place,” I said before we even got out of the car. The phrase was reflexive; I haven’t used it in years. Maybe because I’ve been stuck in the desert, where fairies and their places are in mighty short supply.

I thought the girls’ apathy was impenetrable, but they lifted their heads like racehorses scenting a track. Within seconds, they were out of the car and across the river and calling to come look! come look! with the level of excitement usually reserved only for new Glee episodes.

We pitched tents and played barefoot in the water till dark. The girls kept saying “It is a fairy place; it is SUCH a fairy place” all heady with delight. They collected raspberries and flowers and little pretty things, arranging them just so near certain places they thought the fairies would like best.

In the morning, they woke us with delighted shouts that the berries were missing!! And nothing else had been touched at all, Mama! They found oddly dry rocks left in conspicuous places and were sure the fairies left them in gratitude. Giddy from success, they vanished into the brush to collect more berries, more flowers, more little pretty things to leave behind.

In spite of the dizzying speed at which they’re approaching adulthood-- too slowly and too quickly, all at once-- I feel freshly anchored. Even though they are careening away from childish things, becoming unrecognizable from the 'them' we've known for the length of their lifetimes, there's a kernel there that wants to believe in fairies, a smidgen of innocence left unaffected by cell phones and skinny jeans. 

I remembered why I started collecting fairies in the first place: so I could remember that too. The simple strength of childhood faith in magical things: Mom's kiss will make it better; other worlds await beyond wardrobe doors; fairies live near waterfalls. 

Maybe it's no accident that life got real dull and cranky right around the same time I felt irritated with fairies in my house. Maybe it's faith that threads magic through our lives instead of the other way around.


Victory. I think. A little bit.

My hardest part of being a stepmama is never feeling like I win. Not in a self-martyring woe-is-me kind of way, but in the sense that victories aren’t really victories. Or they are, but they’re shaded in unexpected tones and tricky to make out-- not as brightly victorious as I’d like. And not the way I’d have defined ‘victory’ a year ago-- five years ago-- six months ago.

The girls came home after several days with their (respective) other families yesterday.

“Mama, we need girl talk. Like, NOW,” says Miss G. Miss L nods agreement.

“Uh oh. Everything okay?”

“Yeah. Me and Miss L just need to talk about things with you.”

The girls exchange meaningful looks and eyebrow waggles. Serious business.

Dan wisely leaves the house, and the girls collapse in the family room with joint sighs of utter disgust. Disgust at the world, I guess, or parents everywhere or maybe just at Dan. Who can say.

Miss G goes on a rant about this and that while Miss L chimes in here and there, and I murmur and/or exclaim in (apparently) all the right places. Everyone feels better, and I feel all popular and stuff, and the girls disperse with lighter hearts.

A little later, Miss G finds me alone in the kitchen and gives me a big hug.

“I love you, Mama!”
“Aww, I love you too.”
“I think Miss L loves you too. A little bit.”

It’s kind of funny and heartbreaking and touching all at once. Just like everything else about being a stepmama.

And I feel-- well, semi-victorious. Not because my stepdaughter loves me (We think. A little bit.) but because she no longer leaves a room if I enter. She asks me for help with art projects. She hovers in the kitchen while I make dinner.

On the other hand-- she doesn’t give me hugs. She responds to my “Good night, girls! Love you!” with silence, or sometimes a delayed “.... ’night!”

I’m finding my way. I’m moving forward even if the scenery doesn’t match the job description, and it doesn’t wreck me any more. The news that she might love me (a little bit) doesn’t devastate me by falling short of what I want for us like it would have a couple years ago. But neither is it the desperate lifeline tied to the family I always wanted, not like it would have been a couple years before that.

So it’s kind of a victory. I think. A little bit.

It isn’t that I don’t care, because of course I do. But there’s a significant difference between regular caring and caring so much that your whole life, your future happiness, and maybe even your sanity depend on it.

I’ve learned to let Miss L be Miss L, and let me be me, let this family be whatever it is instead of insisting it become something it’s not. She’s changed, and I’ve changed and we’ve traveled from miserable through tolerance all the way up to mutual-- something. Respect? Friendship? Tentative affection?


We think. A little bit.


Working from home is so much harder

I balanced the home-work thing so much better when I didn’t work at home. It’s much harder to maintain boundaries now.

I had it down to a science, too. Alarm went off at 3:30 am. Get up, get dressed, wake the kid up and get her dressed. Pack our bags up together. Drop her at daycare, give her kisses goodbye, drive off feeling guilty, get to work by 4:45. On an 8-hour day, I was done by 1:30. Call the daycare en route to grocery store, tell them not to pick the kid up from school. Do a mad grab of groceries in 10 minutes or less, speed to school, surprise Miss G with reprieve from afternoon daycare. She did homework while I cooked dinner, then we watched a movie together while eating. Then-- bathtime, booktime, bedtime. Next morning we'd get up and do it again.

Overtime days were trickier. Or easier, depending on perspective. There’s no time for wasting; every minute has to count. This removes a lot of choice as far as how to spend your days, which I personally appreciated. Too many options overwhelm me.

Maybe that’s my problem-- excessive freedom. Working from home feels like I have all the time in the world to accomplish everything I want to. In reality, it’s more like the overtime schedule: every minute has to count.

I woke up early today, ready to work on a painting. Then I foolishly checked my email first, which led to other computery things-- stupid social media and networking and, oh yeah, squeezing a little writing in. And then, Miss G had a stomachache and needed extra MamaCare, so really very little got done.

Don’t get me wrong. I love that I’m in a position now where I can drop everything to take care of my kid without feeling guilty for it. Or, more accurately, without fear of job loss or black marks against me compounding my guilt. At the same time, I still need to get shit done.

It is a constant battle to keep those lines between working and mom sharp and clear when it all happens in the same physical place, and I'm losing.

I start writing, then realize I have got to get laundry on the line before it gets too hot outside. While hanging laundry, I remember I need to submit a couple paintings for a show by tomorrow, so I do that next. Then it’s lunchtime. Then I have to run errands, or I have articles to write, or caulking to take care of at the Other House, or have just plain lost my groove.

In the meantime-- the dog hair blows across the floor like little furry tumbleweeds, the dishes pile up, the car gets a flat. I flip out at Dan and the kids because I am literally the only person who seems to give a crap that we live in a pigsty, and they are all fully capable of washing their own dishes. Instead they just leave them in the sink, because Someone Else will do them. This leads to fights that involve phrases like “my time is just as valuable as your time” and words like “accountability.”

My list of things to do grows daily instead of shrinking. I don’t feel efficient in any direction, and I keep thinking it’s just because I haven’t figured out the right method. Any other working-from-home moms struggle with this? How do you set your boundaries? How do you maximize your worktime efficiency while still taking advantage of having more physical time with your kids?



My daughter turns thirteen this week.

There's an endearing, exasperating naivete to this age. She wears eyeliner but doesn’t wash her hair without reminders. She's self-conscious enough to ask me if she can bleach her mustache, but not enough to bleach it regularly. Sometimes she leaves the house looking like a million bucks. Other times I turn her around before she hits the breakfast table because I cannot stand to look at the same sloppy gym shorts for even one meal more.

Her awkwardness is mixed with a maturity far beyond her years. We're moving at the end of the school year. She tells me her dad offered to fix up a room at his house. I say, "That's an option, if you want to stay here and do that instead." She laughs, slings me a sidelong look that says I should know better. "Mama, he could have fixed it up for me whenever, if he wanted to. I'm ready for a new adventure." She does not say this with hurt defensiveness, or snotty pre-teen attitude, but with indulgence. She’s been to the magic show. She knows all the tricks, watches with eyes straight ahead while a secret smile teases her lips. And I look at her, wondering yet again where this amazing, unquenchable bright spirit came from. Surely not from me.

There’s no mistake, though. Her chin is definitely mine; her smile is her father’s. Her eyes are my brown; their mischievous glint is his. As childish curves melt away revealing new profiles, my hands emerge from her wrists. But the way they move-- fast, darting, confident-- that’s her dad all over.

She’s inching a bit taller than me every day now. Some days she mocks me with it, superiority in every line of her. Other times, her face crumples and she buries a mournful “I don’t want to be taller than you” in my neck. I don’t point out how she has to slump to fit there; I just hug her and pretend not to notice.

When we’re swimming, or if my shirt hitches up, she touches the tiny tattoo on my back, two  hearts entwined from a single line. When it was sharp and new, she’d cry “Your heart, Mama!”-- excited every time, as only a toddler can be. I’d answer “Yep! That heart is for you and me, kiddo. We’re a team no matter what.” She’d nod with wide, solemn eyes.

Now her long, unfamiliar fingers trace it for comfort, like this labyrinth might hold her answers.

“I love this tattoo,” she says.
“You and me, kid,” I say.
“You and me, Mama,” she answers, comforted by the familiar litany, by the things that remain true even under puberty’s onslaught.

It's taken every bit of the past thirteen years to learn this is fleeting. Kid problems like slurping spaghetti and forgetting homework are on their way out with a jaunty wave. Instead-- enter birth control. Enter cars, relationships, careers, debates on college vs trade school vs traveling.

A new morning is visible from the porch now, just beyond the looming teens corner. Survive that uncertain landscape and we're there.

I forgot. Even even though everyone told me, has been telling me for years how fast it goes. I never believed them. Eighteen years sounded like a life sentence when I was pregnant and terrified at twenty-two. Now it seems like barely enough time.