The holidays are over now, for real. Every young adult iteration of Christmas break—from the all-too-brief workaday kind to the endless weeks-on-end college kind—has ended. The “big kids” are gone. They have returned now to their parallel universes: their schools, jobs, and lives in townhouses, apartments, and smaller apartments where they live, places that, I realize with a pang, they are talking about when they talk about home. Their car trunks and mine have transported carefully chosen and sorted piles of grown-up Christmas gifts for grown-up lives: a warm blanket, a coffee maker, a bar cart.
Their old bedrooms greet me warmly now, newly straightened to Mom-level standards, which is to say, superior to visiting-adult-child standards. Unlike the rest of the house, no one actually lives in these rooms so, unlike the rest of the house, they have perpetually clean sheets and tightly made beds, winding vacuum paths still evident on the dog-hair-free area rugs. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make my heart sing a bit to gaze at these rooms, tidy and bathed in sunlight. They suggest that I possess a spacious and casually but beautifully pulled-together grasp of home life and housekeeping which I have never, ever possessed but which, I like to imagine, an unexpected guest might actually believe. Provided, of course, that they didn’t know me all that well, and could be convinced not to look too closely.
In the days before my children leave, I think that it will be like taking down the Christmas tree when they go: sure, it will be kind of sad, but to everything there is a season. Just as it is kind of nice to get all the pine needles cleaned up, it will be lovely, I imagine in the abstract, to return to normal. The relative quiet and calm of only one child left at home, the small piles of infrequent laundry. The simplicity of a single school schedule, the way things stay straightened up. Secretly, I start to kind of look forward to it. I begin to dream of snowy post-holiday days spent knitting—perhaps, this year, finishing?—that soft green sweater in a quiet house with a cup of tea at my side and only the silent, familiar rhythm in my head: up and over, around and through.
Knitting is my great love but I will tell you that it is sometimes not as enjoyable as people think it to be. It is often a much more painful process than might be suggested by the pretty pictures on Instagram. If you knit with too much tension, for example, as I do, it can make for some rough going; it is nearly impossible to just will yourself to self-correct, no matter how hard you try. It usually gets better only by allowing for more experience, for some adjustment of the tools that you are working with, for the merit in pressing forward in fervent hope and blind faith. Until eventually, you find the sweet spot.
Being a mom is so much the same.
This marks the third winter in which I have been working, off and on, on that soft green sweater, and the twenty-seventh winter that I have been somebody’s mom. And in both pursuits, I have found that it is the stopping and starting that can be the most challenging. It was easier when you did it all the time.
You thought you could just pick up the pattern and begin again, but you have lost your place and forgotten how it goes. You pick up the needles and you pick up the kid at the airport; you try to remember how you did this before. You had memories of it being relaxing and enjoyable, and of being pretty good at it; you have dreamed of the comfort and joy of returning to it. But when you do, you are surprised to find yourself awkward, out of sync, again a beginner. You have lost your groove; you are struggling just to knit a couple of rows together. You have made the same old mistake you always used to make before, the one you’d forgotten about until you have done it again.
We moms are only trying to knit together a semblance of family life, up and over, around and through. Sometimes it is all mistakes and unravels, but there are moments when it is exactly as I had remembered, and all I had dreamed of returning to. And when it is really time for my children to leave, it does not feel at all like the clean bedrooms, or the carried-out tree. When each of them leaves to go back to their grown up lives, it feels exactly like when you are out somewhere, and you notice that your sweater sleeve is completely unraveling. And you know from experience with other unravels that you cannot begin to stop it, that all you can do is bravely keep going, with the grim awareness that it will unravel a little more with every step. You know with certainty that your garment will never be exactly the same, and you wonder if the seams are strong enough to hold it together. Will it unravel completely? And how will you hide this flaw from the world? How will you cover up the holes on you—and in you—made by this unraveling, so that no one will notice that part of you is so exposed?
All you can do is keep trying to knit a thing together, over days, weeks, years, until it starts to be what it was meant to be. Sometimes it is something simple that you do quickly and easily, something that makes every day a little warmer and better, like a scarf. Sometimes it is a functional but necessary part of a bigger, magnificent something, that you work at over years, like the soft green sleeve of a someday sweater. And maybe that sleeve has some holes in the underarm where no one can see it, because that is the mistake you always, always make but maybe that is OK. Because you kept with it, and it is an imperfect but totally great sweater that you made yourself. And you couldn’t possibly have imagined knitting a sweater—just as you couldn’t possibly have imagined mothering a grown up—when you first were learning how to do it: up and over, around and through.
And you remember that this is why you wanted to do this, or at least to try, in the first place.