By Dena Moes
“SIXTY THREE!” I shouted at my husband Adam and daughters Bella and Sophia. They had wandered into the kitchen expecting me to serve a meal one Saturday afternoon like I always did, with a smile and cloth napkins, most likely Genetically Modifed Organism-free and locally sourced.
“Do you know what that number is?” I asked, staring into their surprised faces. The girls, ages thirteen and nine, shook their heads, eyes wide.
“That is the number of times I feed you each week. Can you even believe it? Sixty friggin three. That is three meals a day for three people, seven days a week. And it is not even counted as a job. It is extra, taken for granted; on top of my actual paying job, plus laundry, paying the bills, keeping up the house, and arranging and chauffeuring all your damn activities.”
“What’s with her?” Bella asked Adam as I stormed out of the kitchen and into my office. I opened my laptop to scroll Tripadvisor.
Adam and I were plotting to rent out our house and spend a year India, visiting family, traveling, and learning. In the meantime, this unexpected thing was happening to me. Now that I knew we would be breaking the routines of our American family life, my patience with them and my belief in their absolute necessity dwindled. I had been holding down so much for so long. Sixty-three meals a week for thirteen years of parenting and I don’t even like cooking.
To Do List Page # 7
*Order silk sleep sacks from Vietnam
*Health Dept – vaccinations
* Talk to math teachers about workbooks
*Cancel dance lessons, violin lessons, health insurance, auto insurance, AAA, liability insurance, insurance insurance
*change website to say currently not taking clients
*clean out the house and ready it for renters, OMG how on earth will I do that ADAM HAS TO HELP
* Indian tourist visas
I had always been a free-spirit, who valued spontaneity and adventure over material things. And I always wanted children, although I had no clue what family life entailed for the woman of the house. Adam and I had our first daughter in the loft of a one-room studio. Baby Bella was easy and portable, and the studio took all of fifteen minutes to clean. Madly in love with her and intoxicated by the endogenous oxytocin and prolactin circulating my system, I carried her everywhere – to work, camping, and parties, tucked in my sling or a backpack. She slept on my back while I sang around campfires and lay in a basket beside drum circles under a full moon. Our joke was the louder the music, the better she slept. I thought, motherhood is great, I’m a natural.
Then our second baby Sophia arrived, and I could barely make it out of the house once a day. During those years, I was mostly alone in a house full of adorable toddling tyrants while Adam worked to build his business. I adored these littles, I could hardly sleep I loved them so fiercely. But day after day, I faced dinner burning, a child crying, dirty diapers, the electrician here, the dog escaped, the bath overflowing, and the phone ringing all at once. “When will Adam be home?” I would ask the baby, the dog, the burnt pots piled in the sink, overwhelmed with longing for adult assistance and companionship. I was grounded, imprisoned in our fortress-like single family home surrounded by yard, fence, and gate.
When our paltry savings were gone I returned to work, grateful to put on clothes and interact with adults. Yet I woke up every morning already running late, already tired. I leapt up to cook scrambled eggs and toast, make lunches, and hustle children off to school, clean socks or no. While the girls were in school, I worked. Violin lessons and play rehearsals filled the hours after school. Arriving home to “Mom! What’s for dinner?” I rushed to get a stir-fry or pasta with a salad on the table. I fell into bed each night worrying about tomorrow, vowing to catch up on laundry and yardwork, and to make those deferred dentist appointments and a crockpot dinner, too. Adam complained that I never had time for him.
Petite woman in bright red blazer: Welcome to Cathy Pacific Airline. How are you today?
Me: (bursts into tears) So blessed! Today we are leaving for India, for eight months. I cannot believe it, it is so amazing. We….
Bella: Mom! She doesn’t care. Just show her our tickets.
Me: Right. Sorry. (searching in my purse for four passports and four tickets, wondering if I forgot anything essential that would prevent me from checking off the last item on the list – Get On the Plane.)
My worst anxiety hit while chauffeuring kids around. I was torn- I chose to arrange my work schedule around the after-school activities, then wondered if this was the best use of time for a woman with a Master’s Degree, in her prime of life. The girls would bicker in the car and not even want to go half the time. But we signed up for it, I already paid for it! While our home, our finances, my health, and even my marriage were in spiraling disarray, I drove like a maniac to get one kid to dance class on time with the correctly colored leotard and the other to her play rehearsals with snacks and costume pieces. Then I killed time, alone, making up piddling errands, while waiting until pick-up. I started to hate my husband, for not doing everything I did, and I started to hate myself, for doing everything I did.
Scene: In a tiny first-class cabin on the Shiv Ganga Express, a night train from Delhi to Varanasi. The family picnics on doughy bakery bread and peanut butter, with Dixie cups of f chai.
Adam: Girls, we are now on a pilgrimage to holy places. We are going to visit the actual spot, the tree, where the Buddha sat. What is a pilgrimage, you may ask?”
Bella (rolls her eyes)
Sophia (shrugs with a ‘beats me!’ smile)
Adam: It is a spiritual journey. We get the blessings of these places, and we will be changed and not come back the same. It is not a vacation, it is a transformation. And I am honored to be doing this with you lovely ladies.”
Bella; Awww Dad! (pillow fight ensues)
I figured I was the only one experiencing dark, shadowy thoughts while my children thrived and we looked gorgeous on social media. Perhaps I was defective, and lacked a certain gene that makes mothers happy doing stuff for their kids. I felt guilty, ungrateful, and wickedly entitled. I didn’t know the problem was systemic, a product of patriarchy and materialism, mixed with the historically unprecedented construct of the nuclear family. I observed other moms more carefully and asked them at school pick-up, at violin recitals, and at the health food coop, “How are you? Is your life working for you?”
I got blank stares and shrugs in reply, or heard a litany of complaints about over-extended, lonely lives. This feeling I had, that I was reluctantly running the entire show, was not uncommon. It was not just me and Adam. A peach pit settled deep in my stomach as I realized that the material abundance we have here in our American dream did not necessarily equate with happiness.
My happiness and sense of freedom were entwined, like the strands of my DNA. I had gotten ensnared in our things, in my plans and programs. When we finally hobbled out the door with our heavy rucksacks on, everything we needed for eight months of travel fit on our backs. Our house was rented out, our businesses shuttered, the kids’ curriculum distilled down to a math workbook each, plus art supplies and books to read. If there was an evolutionary advantage to a mother craving freedom and disentanglement from schedules and obligations, I did not see it. But there I was – a mother who felt her best while wandering through new, unfamiliar terrain. It was like my college days with a Eurail pass again, only in India, only with the whole family along.
Scene: My family walks from our guest house in Bodh Gaya India to the Maha Bodhi park, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Monks, villagers, tourists buses, camels, motorcycles, rickshaws, and pony carts complete for space on the narrow, dusty road. We join the fray in bicycle rickshaws and a cacophony of horns fills our ears. We enter the park to see the hundred-and -eighty-foot tall monument to awakened heart, every inch carved in intricate detail.
Bella: “There are so many Buddhists in the world besides Dad. This is like the Disneyland of Dharma!”
Sophia agrees, and we marvel at the hundreds of Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world, in monks’ robes of burgundy, orange, mustard, and sky-blue. People are circling the tower, chanting sutras, bowing, and sitting meditation. The tangible aura of peace, the pull of 2500 years of devotion, the rainbow of people here for one reason – spiritual connection, suffuses us. We stand a moment, together, and take it all in. I breathe in a deep contentment, grateful I had pushed to make this dream come true. Our time in India would be full with the study of Buddhism, adventurous travel, and intense togetherness. I saw how connection to spirit, land, and community are the real indicators of a meaningful life. And even beyond those, connection to myself, to the whisperings of my own heart. This is what I wanted to model for my daughters. And what I would bring home, and make sure not to forget.
Dena Moes is a Hollywood born, Yale educated midwife with a BA in literature and an MS in Nursing. She is the author of The Buddha Sat Right Here: A Family Odyssey Through India and Nepal,(April 2, 2019) a memoir of adventure, motherhood, and love, woven into a spiritual journey. Dena’s writing has been published in The Daily Beast, Ravishly, Mutha, Grown and Flown, and The Wisdom Daily. As a nurse-midwife Dena has provided compassionate healthcare to women, mothers, and babies for twenty years. Learn more at www.denamoes.com. Dena’s book is now available for order here.