Chicago winters are long. The grayness settles in, arctic air whips, and you no longer have neighbors or friends. You only know one another is alive by the raising and lowering of garage doors and the vanishing of garbage cans on collection day. We stay inside as much as we can, stepping on one another’s toes, twisting ankles on stacked Legos. I pray for just 45 minutes of a 3-child nap so that I can have a little peace. There are 5 of us stuffed into 1000 square feet. There is only one bathroom, so even the brief moments of privacy one thinks may be achieved there are rare. I take my quiet time seriously.
There is an armoire tucked into a corner of our bedroom standing 7 feet tall and made with wood the color of maple syrup. The hum of the processor squeezes through the doors, a siren song. But I can’t stay here. Instead I take up residence at the dining room table—not the same seat I sit in for dinner, but the seat that gets the most sunlight in the morning. The children run back and forth for bites of egg and bacon. I sit still and chew on words.
I sit as still as I can because mid-sentence someone needs more water. Before I start the next paragraph there is a pear to be peeled. When I finally find the perfect word the alarm goes off reminding me that it’s time for six socks and six shoes to find their mates. (They always tell you that your life will change once you have children, but they never tell you to take the amount of time it takes for you to brush your teeth and multiply it by 10.) It is time to do the things that mothers do.
Afternoon comes but so do more distractions. Peel here, vacuum there, pop this, empty that. The eldest wants to play basketball with me—and by basketball, I mean chasing him around the house while he carries a deflated balloon. But my head isn’t there. It wants to be wrapped up with my writing. But I do the things that mothers do and I try to play. “Okay, set the timer for 20 minutes.” As I bat at the ball—balloon—I repeat sentences in my head, a desperate attempt to remember them once the 20 minutes pass. I never can.
I know it won’t be long before he asks me to play basketball again and when I choose to say “no,” I wonder if he’ll think that I don’t love him enough. Maybe in 15 years he will sit in his therapist’s office and she will tell him that his fear of rejection and low self-esteem are all due to my choosing to write instead of play his 5-year-old-version of basketball. On Christmas break he’ll confront me, tell me that the “F” on his history exam is my fault and that if I had just put down the damn pen and played that he would have made the Dean’s list that semester.
I watch other moms sit on the floor and use those sing-songy voices that the books say your children like to hear. They stuff their hands into puppets or go vroomvroom and beepbeep and play tea party and I stare in amazement. I am a writer. I once wanted to be a painter. I can sing. I can dance. Yet there is something about playing that I can’t get into. That I don’t want to get into.
If you ask my mother she’ll tell you I came out of the womb aged 40 years. “Is she always like this?” my husband asks, who even at 13 years my senior would swear I’m at least 20 years older than he. “She’s always been this way,” she says. “She was always the quiet one.” Then he will drag on about my lack of humor and my affinity for sweaters, tea, books, and early bedtimes. Or that when I do seem engaged, it is only with a book or my typewriter. Alone. But this is me.
For Christmas, Santa brought each child a board game. Thankfully he remembered the ones I enjoyed as a child too. They are the kind of games they can play without me, but I hope these are the games that will bring us closer together.
Alisha Sommer is a writer living in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and three children. She loves fresh-baked bread, laying in the sun, and the smell of the sea. When she’s not knee-deep in laundry and lunch-making, she edits and publishes BLACKBERRY: a magazine, a literary magazine featuring black women writers and artists and is the co-creator of liberated lines, an Instagram-based poetry course. You can find Alisha at her website, AlishaSommer.com, and in her favorite playgrounds: Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.