On the third day of the poetry retreat, you feel like you’ve known the other poets forever. You start to talk to each other about much deeper things, things two days of heartfelt poetry allows you to talk about. Shameka was telling me that ever since her son had gone to college in the fall, she felt almost unable to get out of bed on the weekends. She went to work, but that was about it. I too had been suffering in a way I didn’t understand since my son had entered university at the same time. I told her I hadn’t thought I’d be affected by the empty nest, since I had my new and exciting writing career to occupy me, that I could now devote all my time to, instead of only the time I could cobble together in between mothering and housekeeping. But, I told her, I think that it’s more than just the empty nest; it’s the relaxation of eighteen years of vigilance, eighteen years of having to be upbeat and positive so my son didn’t think he had to take care of my moods or emotions, eighteen years of sleeping lightly and not long enough. We have a lot of sleep to make up! I said.
I’m glad you told me that, Shameka said. I don’t feel quite so alone.
In the train on the way home from the retreat, it hit me. Sure, my vigilance felt like a heavy burden to me, but it could never be as burdensome as Shameka’s. When my son wears a black hoodie, it crosses my mind to tell him not to wear it up over his head. It crosses my mind, but I don’t tell him so. My son is white, so it doesn’t matter what he wears. Shockingly, it doesn’t matter what he does either. I know that he could never hurt anyone (he became a vegetarian at age seven because he couldn’t bear the thought of animals having to die so he could eat), but others don’t know that about him. I’m lucky in another way that he’s such a nerdy engineering student. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t drive, and I don’t think he’s gone to any rowdy parties. But deeper than that, he does not have a target on his back.
I’ve met Shameka’s lovely son, and if personality were ever taken into account, he would not have a racially profiled target on his back either. But personality means nothing in this wicked equation. How much more Shameka has to fear for her son than I have to fear for mine. On the train, my throat closed up. Of course she can’t get out of bed. Of course not.
Empty nest syndrome, the relaxation of eighteen years of vigilance, menopause, the sheer volume of rejection inherent in any writing career—all these have taken their toll on my mood in the last five years. I wish I knew what to do to lighten the burden others carry. Others who have burdens much heavier than mine, but all I know how to do is admit my own difficulties. To talk openly about the challenges that parenting hands all of us. So many times after my son was born, it was pounded home to me that American society does not really care about its children. No changing tables in many public places, breastfeeding barely tolerated if not discouraged outright, the safety of small children routinely endangered and all these with little sense of guilt. Time and again I would think: who designed this? who believes this is fair? who cares so little for their own precious children, let alone the equally precious children of others?
We must care for all our children, or we are not caring for any of them. I don’t know what to do about this. All I know is all of us must do more, do better.
Originally from Minnesota, Julie Hart has lived in London, Zurich and Tokyo and now in Brooklyn Heights. Her work can be found in Five Quarterly, Denim Skin, PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Floor Plan Journal, Blue Lyra Review, Yellow Chair Review and at juliehartwrites.com.