Invisible motherhood and stolen smiles

As mothers, we are building great cathedrals. We cannot be seen if we’re doing it right. And one day, it is very possible that the world will marvel, not only at what we have built, but at the beauty that has been added to the world by the sacrifices of invisible mothers.

Nicole Johnson, at least according to this post.

My daughter had her first piano recital on Sunday afternoon. I did not shed a tear during her performance (my children have trained me that crying in public because I’m proud of them is simply not allowed because #itssoembarassingmom) but I started weeping uncontrollably as soon as she and her other first year classmates came off of the stage and back to their seats. And like with many things that I write about, I have some thoughts for why I wept uncontrollably — and I obsessively tossed those thoughts around for most of the day yesterday — but I need some space to process them.

The piano program that my daughter participates in is a pretty serious one, with high expectations for daily practice and memorized recital pieces and flash cards and musical theory and [and, and…]. We are probably not the poster family for a program like the one we’re in, because #chaos and “What? There are people who can figure out how to sit down with their kids for 30 minutes every day for piano practice?!” — but both kids have more-or-less made it through the curriculum despite the fact that daily practice isn’t part of their reality. And they haven’t kicked us out, yet…so that’s good enough for now.

I think I’ve talked a lot about my son in previous posts, but less about my daughter. There is a whole lot I could say about her, but for the purposes of this post, it’s enough, I think, to mention that she is “strong-willed.” And in this case, what this means is that she was determined to play a particularly challenging piece for her recital…but this determination did not always manifest in the form of “enthusiasm for practice.” Instead, she’d get bursts of motivation, during which she would figure out a few measures and be *so proud* … but then something would happen and she’d storm away from the piano, and/or throw her books across the room, and/or scream at me, and/or start banging violently on the keyboard, and/or [just about any other manifestation of frustration you could imagine].

In the weeks leading up to the recital, she would consistently have some — but not all — of the piece memorized to the satisfaction of the program director. She’d work on it in her private lesson, and she’d get closer, but then she’d have an in-class recital and she’d fumble her way through it so her teacher would ask her to strongly consider playing an easier piece and she’d insist that she wanted the harder one and her teacher would make her promise to play it 30 times a day, and so she’d come home and [see previous paragraph]. This went on and on and on for a month…but we did it. She did it. She practiced and practiced and practiced and she mastered the piece that she was so determined to play. She got up on stage, and she had one brief thinking pause, and the rhythm wasn’t quite right, but she hit all the notes and slowed down just right at the end, and it was incredible.

And when she walked off the stage, you know who got to look her in the eye and exchange proud smiles? Her dad. Who was, at least according to the Google calendar that he shares with me, “working” this weekend. I didn’t know he was coming, and neither did my daughter. But she was pleased to see him, and if she’s happy I do my best to keep it together for her sake, and so he sat down in primo seats with his mom front-and-center in the auditorium, and I quietly found a seat in the back with a just-fine view of the stage, and I watched. So when she finished, she walked right past him on her way back to her seat, and she grinned at him and he grinned back and…I lost it.

That moment was everything that enrages me about the life that I’m currently living. Her dad hasn’t been present for one second of piano practice. He’s never had her throw her piano books at him and scream at him how much she hates him. He’s never had to wake her up early — really early — and give her “two more minutes” of time under the covers and endless morning back scratches and foot rubs in order to coax her out of bed for another ten times through her piece. He’s never had to figure out how to surreptitiously record yet another video of her progress on the piece to send to her teacher. He’s never done anything related to her piano except — on the weeks he happens to be in town — to pick her up from her weekly group lesson to take her for a couple of hours of supervised play time before dropping her off with me so that I can enforce all the rules and put her to bed. And wake her up again the next morning. And on and on and on.

But on Sunday afternoon he popped in, and he got the front-and-center seats, and the proud smile at the end, and the first hug once the whole show was over…and then he was gone again. Out the door of the auditorium and on to do whatever he does with all of the time that he doesn’t spend parenting. And I just sat in my back corner seat and tried to quietly wipe all of the tears that I couldn’t stop from coming until finally my baby girl came up to me wearing a shy grin and I picked her up in a huge hug and told her that she was amazing and I was so impressed by how much her hard work had paid off and we ultimately went to our shared favorite restaurant and everything was fine — maybe even better-than-average.

But beneath the smiles and hugs and pork belly sandwiches was a me that was sad and angry and frustrated and angry and disoriented and did I mention ANGRY? After all of the sacrifices that nobody sees finally paid off in a moment that I would have loved to proudly share with my daughter, I was a weeping snotty mess…and then I spent the whole afternoon emotionally reeling and exhausted and trying to recover.

So I guess I’m glad that I’d seen the post that I quoted at the beginning, reminding me that it is a universal truth of parenting — it’s mothering for me, but I have no doubt that there are countless involved and committed fathers for whom it is equally true. Our contributions to the lives of our children are, often, invisible. Invisible to them, and invisible to the world…but the daily struggles and snuggles really are the painstaking craftsmanship of cathedral building. It’s tough, gritty, thankless work that we do — but I do think there is real joy in the process. Exhaustion, and frustration, and helplessness, and weeping, and near-hopelessness…but also joy.

It’s brutal [BRUTAL] to watch my ex get to experience the fruits of the process without doing the work — but I think the best I can do is remember that much of the joy comes from the process itself. He might get to visit the cathedral from time to time, but he doesn’t get the satisfaction of knowing that he built it. I do. And for now, sometimes, when I slow down, that’s enough for me.


2 thoughts on “Invisible motherhood and stolen smiles

  1. So many hugs. As always, you’ve written your thoughts and emotions so beautifully, and this one has me crying with you. Love to you and continued prayers for you and your kids.


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