When I was 5 years old, my mom signed me up for ballet lessons. We bought the pink tutu, the tights, the shoes, the whole works, and I couldn’t wait. I twirled around the kitchen in my finery, spun my way from room to room. The Big Day couldn’t come quickly enough.
Then two days before the Big Day, disaster struck in the form of the chicken pox. I was covered from head to dancing feet in the ugly, itchy rash. Still, on the appointed day I donned my dancing gear (itch! scratch!) and optimistically informed my parents I was ready for class (ITCH!!!! SCRATCH!!!) When my dad calmly tried to explain there could be no dance lessons due to the highly contagious nature of my predicament, I did what any 5-year-old would do and called his decades of medical training into question, demanded a second opinion with a “real” doctor, and then burst into tears.
We missed that whole session of ballet, and somehow signing up for a new one got lost in the shuffle. I’m not sure if we just forgot to do it, or if like most kids, my interests changed, but I can thank the chicken pox in part for scratching Prima Ballerina off my future career list.
Now more than three decades later, despite my lack of formal training I’ve become a dancer of a very different sort. I find myself performing this dance with the kids, dancing alone, dancing even when I don’t know that I’m dancing. At church, in the grocery store checkout line, you name the place, and I’m probably dancing. It’s become a part of who I am, a physical manifestation of the movement and shift that’s taken place in my life. The steps are simple- it’s just a gentle back and forth, back and forth sway. I call it The Mom Dance.
There’s no course to take to learn the dance- it happens on the job as soon as a child is placed in your arms. That’s when seemingly endless days that blur into nights of rocking, cradling, bouncing and soothing eventually come together to form a recital of sorts and voila: The Mommy Dance is born. After that point, you’ll often find yourself swaying whether the “music” is tears or laughter, whether you’re holding a child or not. Back and forth, back and forth.
I’ve slipped into the habit of watching and listening to other moms with great interest these days, and many of them seem to move just as effortlessly back and forth through the journey of motherhood. Maybe it’s all for show, but they seem to be capable of going from “Mom” to “Not Mom” mode with relative ease, while I’ve found myself pretty much stuck in one gear for the past four years.
I know, I know, the grass is often greener on the other side of the diaper bag, and we are definitely not among those blessed with a host of family/friends/help nearby to relieve us from the everyday-ness of everyday. Still, as I sit in a rare moment of solitude and catch myself swaying back and forth in my seat, I can’t help but wonder what it will take for me to follow Stella’s lead and get my groove back.
One of my favorite courses in graduate school was applied linguistics (I’m weird that way) where I first learned the term “code switching.” It’s usually applied to bilingual children who have the ability to seamlessly navigate their different languages. They almost never make the mistake of using one language with speakers of the other. They intrinsically grasp and efficiently use the phonology, syntax and mannerisms of each linguistic variety. I, on the other hand, forget that it us customary to close the bathroom door when in a group of adults.
Sure, my husband and I go out “sans enfants” from time to time (a 2-hour interlude during which we usually end up talking about the kids) and we even recently took our first child free trip. But I still feel clumsy when I’m away from my main post, fumbling through what has suddenly become unfamiliar territory, despite the fact it was my stomping grounds for nearly 34 pre-baby years. And when I am home with them, which is basically day after day after day, I still at times feel resentful of the times I must put on a happy face and dance whether I’m in the mood to boogie or not.
But despite my awkward dance steps, despite my occasional shock when realizing my current dancing shoes lean more toward sensible than strappy, the older I get (I’m still not so sure about “wiser”) I am coming to realize that the dance is inherently unique. Every parent needs to find his/her own rhythm and pace. What works for the mom down the street, or the one down the Facebook status update list (you know, the one who hit the parent-teacher conference on the way to the Kid Rock concert, with an apparent wardrobe change in a telephone booth), may or may not work for me, and I’m working on being OK with that.
The important thing is to just keep moving, back and forth, back and forth. To keep trying to find a way to stay balanced, to find a chance to recharge, all while constantly in motion. The struggle to maintain an individual identity while maintaining devotion to children will always be there, and it may never get any easier.
My children, for all the tantrums, the tiny fingerprints on newly Windex-ed windows, and the mommy guilt that comes with them, have done the seemingly impossible- they’ve turned a not-so-graceful, not so sure-footed, untrained woman into a dancer. And for them, for their sweet smiles and their silly questions and their sticky fingers, I will throw my heart into this challenging, precarious, not-quite-ready-for-primetime performance.
Because the dance goes on.
And deep down I know I don’t want to miss a step.
Mona Shand is a radio and TV news reporter. You can read more on her blog.