The Unfinished Sympho-Me

There is no domestic carnage like that wrought by a stir-crazy stay-at-home Mom who has decided to “fix X for once and for all.”

I should know that undertaking any plan that could be described as a “final solution” is a bad idea, and yet, I keep doing it. Worse, I keep beginning new such projects in cascading fashion, leaving an erratic, tornadic trail of devastation in my wake. (Newscaster voice: “Residents tonight are asking themselves, why did she dump out both sock drawers, but leave the underwear drawer untouched? And worse–will she be back?”)

I am fully aware of my tendencies, and yet I tend them anyway. I tend SO HARD. I can be making fun of myself in my head for doing something ridiculous and I still do it! Because I want to! Yesterday, I found my little paws sorting my jewelry, none of which I ever wear, into things to sell, give away, or keep never wearing. Why? Because in the fist few pages of the new issue of Real Simple, the cover of which is this:

Real Simple cover

Ahem, li’l judgy…


I saw an anecdote about a woman who was happy she’d done just this–sort, sell, give away. Now, did I read any more of this magazine? Have I read any of the other magazines I subscribed to a few weeks ago when I was in a weird mood and missing work and thought I would do a neat “investigation” of Mom Culture that included reading such magazines and writing about them? Have I mounted the pretty gold magazine holder rack I found a few months ago and leaned against the garage wall sort of obstructing the door so that the inconvenience would remind me to hang it every time I did laundry, aka several times a day?

No. No to everything. No to all.

And how did the jewelry thing go?


Why yes, that is the Adult ADHD Tool Kit.


Toby sez, “Even for you, man…”


“…Even for you.”

So yeah. Failing to finish what I start is a pretty strong trait. Amateurs might need denial to keep performing their sub-optimal behaviors, but us old pros. We can look that flaw right in the face and say, “YUP! That’s me. You nailed it. Nailed… I shouldlearn woodworking!”

It’s important to note that I do not like disorder. It brings me a lot of discomfort, actually. I’m a homebody, and my environment both influences and reflects my state of mind. So I can become calmer and saner by cleaning up, but I can also be deranged a bit by being sunk into a chaotic environment. Chicken and egg are symbiotic. Which means that when I go around tossing my three rooms like a warden at Shawshank, I am both making things worse for my brain and, probably, reflecting a level of disorder already happening upstairs, so to speak.

The madness if not without method. The alternative to chaotic upheaval is an acceptance of the million papercuttish Wrong Things that my eye registers day after day as I wander my three rooms. The magazine rack for example, is a papercut–a little mental wince each time I see it. It’s the home equivalent of a coworker who regularly sighs when you do something, but when you ask what’s wrong, she says, “Nothing….” Imagine your house saying that.

(The flip side of this is that the answer to “what’s wrong?” in this case really is “nothing.” No one else cares if the bathroom remain painted a fleshy pink, dimpled like cellulite and glossy like a cafeteria wall–no one but me. In fact, no one cares that I have repainted the bathroom a deep, luminous blue only as high as I can reach. Blue for a good while and then beige again. This matters to no one. Nothing I do to the house matters. That fact good for my angst over unfinished projects but bad for my general sense of purpose.)

Oh hey, I have to stop now. Maybe I can finish this later. Ha! So thematic!



One of the most damaging ideas I ever internalized, and that still has roots so deep and strong that it makes me feel like I’m trying to deny reality when I fight to uproot them, is that there is a life I’m “supposed” to be living, a me I’m “supposed” to be, and I am constantly succeeding or failing at having that life. I obsess about forks big and small: I should have sold that book proposal in 2007 (no, I shouldn’t have; that wasn’t a book I needed to write, just one I could have written, but I want my career to reflect things I really care about) (yes, obviously you should have sold it, there’s nothing about having published one kind of book that makes it impossible to do another kind, no matter what’s “optimal” for the “marketplace,” and besides, what does your book list reflect now? nothing, because no book has been perfect enough, you jag); I should be typing something different with these unknown number of minutes I have during which Benji is satisfied by lying alone in his crib looking at his mobile (make the most of this–which of the million entries you’ve started writing in the last week do you want actually to commit?) (indecision is the stupidest way you could use this time) and so on. I have spent years not doing things because I was sure there was a Right way to do them and I was sure if I just thought about it and worried about it hard enough, I could do them the Right way and, I don’t know, avert disaster, embarrassment, mistakes? Please the gods? You may be saying to yourself, well, everyone does that. No but guys my shit is pathological. I am sitting here hoping the baby will cry so I don’t have to tell you this embarrassing story from college illustrating how pathological.

Omigod he just started whining. That’s hilarious. I can control all things with my mind.

(My mind right now: Why are you writing about your indecision? Why don’t you use this time to go work on one of the two books you’ve done so much research for and will someday look back and say, “Man, I should have just written those”? God you’re dumb.

Me, to my mind: You are a _terrible_ steward of your omnipotence.)

Okay, he chilled out, so long story short, when I was in college, I got obsessed with this young (white) British man who’d grown up in Kenya and become a photographer and kept these very elaborate, beautiful, detailed collage diaries of his travels. Well he and his friends were just dicking around through Africa in a jeep one of the many times they did this and they ran across the victims of the Somali famine which European media hadn’t begun covering yet. He was horrified of course and started working for Reuters and his diaries got much darker, like you’d expect, and then one day some European military force of some kind bombed a house that held a beloved local leader and Dan–that was his name, Dan Eldon–was present and white and, understandably, the horrified and grieving townsfolk stoned him to death. He was almost 22. His mother then compiled his diaries into an art book and published it and I found it when I was home for my Christmas break in December 1998 and folks, I just weren’t the same after that.


Oh hey Benji isn’t messing around now. I’ll have to continue this later. But since I promised myself I had to publish whatever I wrote when I wrote it, uh… sorry! To be continued!

Chanel No. 2

Someone made this room smell terrible.

It might have been the baby, the husband, or the cat, but it definitely wasn’t me. And yet I, the only sure innocent, am also the only victim.

Everyone else is sleeping. Some part of their brains must be conscious of this olfactory assault, but, rightly or wrongly, it has been deemed less than life-threatening. So they snooze on, as this rich, full-bodied aroma settles heavily around us like a dewy morning fog. This biotic perfume. This intestinal memory. It’s layered and complex, with a deep, loamy base, sharp, sparkling top notes, and an unsettling tendril of sweetness running through the middle. For a few minutes, it’s all I can smell–or hear, or see, for that matter. A fart so vivid that gives you mild synesthesia. A fart unto itself. A fart for the ages.

Just to be safe, I’m blaming Jeffrey.


First Words

I’ve never understood why a baby’s first word is assumed to be “mama” or “dada.” I get that it’s a repeating syllable, but those aren’t even close to being the words he hears most often, and Benji’s babble, which is elaborate in pitch, syllabic diversity and dynamic range, rarely repeats. He doesn’t go “ba ba ba.” He goes, “BeeeeYOOOOOvvvvvvvvvvvv(gutteral monster growl.) BAV! Err, namunbawn-bunnbrrrrrrrrrrr….. GEOWA!”

It’s quite cute. Sometimes it even sounds like he’s said a phrase appropriate to the circumstances, like when he asked the other night, “How’re you?” Which is of course something we ask him a lot. Jeffrey and I looked at each other and back at the baby and I said, “….Fine?” But I’m sure it was accidental. Probably.

I do wonder though if his first word or phrase will be something he’s heard often. If that’s the case, here are some likely candidates.


  1. Awww.
  2. I love you.
  3. C’mere, you.
  4. Bless you! (he sneezes a lot)
  5. Who’s my little guy?
  6. That’s okay, I can wash it.
  7. Where’s Benji? (peek-a-boo edition)
  8. Where’s Benji???? (panicked edition)
  9. I’ll be right back. Don’t freak.
  10. I said I’d be right back!
  11. Somebody’s sleepy.
  12. Somebody’s cranky.
  13. Somebody needs to snuggle down.
  14. Somebody needs to come home right this minute.
  15. Where’s Daddy? Where’s Daddy?
  16. No seriously where is your father.
  17. I love you.
  18. Good fart, babe.


I don’t know about you, but I’ve crammed a few lives into this one. So far, by a rough count, motherhood is my sixth. My fifth life, as a journalist, only happened because it took my husband and me five years to get pregnant. (The stamina on that guy!) (I’m sorry, babe.) (Not sorry enough to backspace though.)

It was 2011, I was fresh out of grad school and broke, and I was supposed to be revising a book but instead was reading Le Carré novels and meeting Jeffrey at Subway on his lunch break to hold his hands and cry into my Honey Oat loaf. (So absorbent!) So when I was offered a staff position at the Texas Observer, a venerable news magazine where I’d published culture pieces for years, I accepted. I may not have known anything about anything, but I knew that folks with a fresh MFA don’t turn down steady work (roughly) in their field. The editor assured me I’d figure out how to do hard news, and I did.

But it was rough. The learning curve was exciting, but the content was brutal. I’m an artistic soul. I have written poems about seeing a moth drowned in standing bath water. PoemS. PLURAL. Being a good journalist meant really learning how badly state government and big business treat people who already have it worst, and how nasty, bad, callous, cynical, stupid, negligent, reckless, obdurate, contemptible, ignorant and unrepentant the people who run said government and business really are. It’s hard for me to say that I used to be a journalist because I think it’s like being an alcoholic in some ways. Being that thing changes you in ways that don’t reverse, the temptation to return is always there, and it takes years for your liver to recover. Quantifying the world’s meanness, and getting to know it intimately–not in a big “the president is a dick” way, but like, sitting across from the harm-doers, and then sitting across from the harmed–hurts. I cried every day of that job for the first six months. That’s not an exaggeration. Good days I only cried once. But it was every single day, including weekends. From stress, grief, rage, frustration with my ineptitude, frustration with theirs–every day. I had nightmares every night and woke up every morning drenched in sweat. I lost so much weight from stress that a friend asked in earnest whether I was doing meth. But I stuck with it, and one major reason was that I thought any day now, I would get pregnant and at some point in the process I’d know it was okay to quit. Not okay per anyone else, of course. Okay for me, to me. I would be justified in letting go of the beautiful job that was making me miserable but also teaching me about the world and giving me a chance to help and bringing in my first decent paycheck and giving me a good answer to the question, “What are you up to now?” and, most importantly, staying the hand of the taskmaster in my mind, the one on whose whip is printed, “What are you doing with your life?”

As you can imagine, my friends noticed the toll of all this, and also, they had to deal with hearing about whatever I was working on. So when my editor asked me to come up with a name and subject for a blog, my buddy suggested T.O.B.B., the Texas Observer Baby Blog. It was to be nothing but cute pictures of babies. For perspective. For mental health. Because while ignoring or denying suffering and injustice is an unbalanced way to view the world, so is ignoring kindness and goodness and well-being, the absence of suffering, the prevention of harm, the streets safely crossed, the planes landed without incident, the good dates, the just judges, the bad ideas quietly quashed and lovingkindness manifested out of habit.

So it took five years, but here we are.


What a nice place to be.

The Benji Dance

Writing about identity from a place of this much privilege takes a lot of gall. The luxury of asking what one “is” and what one “should” be doing–as if there were an arbiter, as if someone were going to take up my test at any moment and mark with a red pen each place where I didn’t do what I was “supposed” to–suggests an intrinsic significance to my life that I do not intellectually or philosophically think it has. Unless there is a book in which every other human life is also assigned an identity and purpose, and a whole hell of a lot of them are called to, say, die in childhood of preventable diseases, then it makes no sense to wrack my little brain over my calling. But here I am again, hunched over the test paper I wrote myself, scribbling and erasing answers, flinching at each shadow at the door. When is time up? Did I do it right? How about now?

That was how I lived for 36 years, and then I had Benji. Instantly, the test was real but for the first time, the task was clear and the arbiter was present. If he’s fine, I’m fine. That’s it. I remember a friend carrying his toddler into the back yard of a shitty old house where we lived for the year before Benji, and this friend, a tall guy, slammed his forehead against the inexplicably low porch roof. I knew how much it hurt because we’d all done it a few times, but he didn’t swear or shout. In fact, he barely reacted, except to say in a measured tone, with his hand on the back of his son’s head, “It’s okay. The baby’s okay, and that’s what matters.” I was surprised then. I get it now.

As I write all this in the stilted, wordy way I write when I’m nervous and out of practice, the editor in my mind has her eyebrow arched. “Hmmmm?” she says. “So having a baby relieved you of the burden of figuring out what to do with your life?” No, I say. It just gave me something to care about besides myself. “Oh?” she says. “So children are more important than the women who have them?” No, I mean– “They’re not?” Her lipstick line is very crisp. “Who has more agency? They didn’t ask to be born you know–” OKAY STOP. I won’t write a damn thing if I have to answer to the entire Jezebel comments section every time I have a thought. The bottom line is, yeah, when Benji was born, another Emily was too. I’ve always only been Emily the writer, and she is a fundamentally uncomfortable person because she has never known what she was supposed to be doing but she has always been sure she could have been doing it better and more. (A triumvirate of my college professors raise one finger and say in unison, “That’s true.”) Now Benji’s here and I’m Emily the mom, and it rules. You understand? It’s freaking great. Because I know what I’m doing. I keep him safe and happy and fed and I make sure he feels loved and safe so his little neurons prune themselves in such a way that he’ll be somewhat insulated from the hereditary anxiety disorder I have unquestionably passed on to him in some degree. He laughs and I’m happy, you get it? I’m present in that moment, and I’m happy. You know how hard it is for me to be present? But blammo, with him, I am. That’s worth rebuilding your world around.

“Okay,” says me circa 2002, swiveling her chair around. God, her skin looks great. “So why the blog?” She’s got an Audre Lorde poster over her shoulder. “Why are you sequestered in the guest room, hearing your beloved, world-bending baby squall at your mother instead of running to him? If he completes you and makes you feel so present and justified, if his smile puts pressure on the old wound, why the new blog?”

Because Emily the writer is still here, too. She is so happy to take a backseat. She could never satisfy all the judges. But she is still here. And maybe if the pressure is off, maybe she could become a sort of assistant to Emily the mother. Make notes, explore questions. Take their shared brain out to the park and run it each day so it won’t get too pent up and tear down the curtains. But nothing has to come of it, you see. It doesn’t have to be right. The things I write don’t have to be true for everyone else, or anyone else. They can just be mine. It can just be practice. But it has to be every day, even if short, and it has to be public, or else there’s no accountability and I won’t do it.

“You’re making a mistake,” says 2013 me. “You have nothing to add. You are a middle class white woman of extraordinary privilege writing about her insecurities. The world does not need this.”

“You’re really committed to wasting your talent, aren’t you?” sighs the Greek chorus of professors. “There are plenty of real things you could be addressing besides your feelings.”

“That’s sexist,” says the Jezebel commenter. “But seriously, a mommy blog?”

“It’s okay,” says a girl’s voice. It’s me, age ten. I take my own hand. “You don’t have to have a reason. And nobody has to read it. And if they do, they don’t have to like it. Just… write because if you don’t, you’ll never know what you were going to say. Okay?”