I take the train from Union Station in DC to Penn Station--the Acela, much sleeker than the clunky trains in which I once chugged up and down the Northeast Corridor, back and forth to college. Seth and I took an overnight train home from DC after Passover one year, pulling into Penn Station and brushing our teeth in our tiny berth sink and heading straight to school for me, to work from him. I like trains, like the past they evoke. I find them more relaxing than planes. In the station, I photograph the pigeons, who do not belong in a train station, but there they are. I muse about my family’s history—Great-grandfather changed the course of locomotive history with the compression engine feature he designed. But that was long ago. I think of 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, its art deco feel, cavernous ceilings, a building designed to show that men were mightier than nature. Ha. I think of Witness and Harrison Ford, and how I never used a bathroom at 30th Street after that film. There was a pretzel/hot dog stand in the corner by the exit Mom and I used, and often, we would buy a hotdog—limp, delicious, covered in onions and ketchup or a soft pretzel slathered in brown mustard. She was always waiting for me at the top of the stairs when I got home from college, her small frame enveloped in her gray-green Loden coat, a woolen fedora jaunty on her dark hair. I think of meeting people at Grand Central by the clock. I love the coming and going of a train station, making up stories about the people I observe.
This summer day, I heave my suitcase and my tote bag onto the train, tuck myself into a foursome, a table in between the seats. It seems I have chosen wrong since I’m facing backwards, but I don’t mind. I have my journal and a book and plenty of dreaming to occupy me as I gaze out the window. The seats next to me and across from me stay empty until you arrive.
You sit caddy-corner from me, across the table. I estimate you are in your late twenties or early thirties. You are beautiful. I marvel at how elegant and put together you appear—hair tidy, nails manicured. Never have I felt so effortlessly elegant, but then I stop myself. Why should I assume your appearance is effortless? We both pull out our laptops and begin to work. After some time, you bend deftly underneath our shared table and plug in a charging cable. I feel relieved that you have found the outlet; I had forgotten that I would need to charge things. I bend, too, and plug in.
How did our conversation begin? We smiled at one another, made a few remarks; it’s the casual easy banter of train strangers, born of shared circumstance, knowing we have no obligations to the future. I learned you have a little girl; she is twenty months. You will meet your girlfriends in NYC for a girl weekend. It turns out you are thirty-two.
Somehow, we meandered into a conversation about parenting, about marriage and our in- laws. You shared the pressure you feel of balancing work and school—you are getting an MBA in addition to working a big job and raising your daughter. I feel protective of you—you sag a bit beneath the burden of the many cultural and gender expectations in your life. Your husband and your in-laws have many thoughts about the woman you are supposed to be. Those expectations get set early in our marriages; they can make it hard to breathe. We talked about how strange it feels to be the “other” in our spouse’s family. We absorb dynamics we may not fully understand. I told you that I run a girls’ school, that my two daughters are grown up. Looking at you, with everything in front of you, my heart squeezes. There are so many things I want you, a total stranger, to know. Here is my list—for you and for so many young women in my life:
·You are enough—your efforts are enough.
·Make women friends who are older that you, who don’t know your spouse or your in-laws—but who will affirm you, your choices, your hopes.
·Control, in excess, isn’t good for our daughters. That said, neither is juice.
With food, avoid the forbidden fruit approach—don’t make too big a deal out of any food—it doesn’t end well.
You know your child better than anyone else—I learned that from our first pediatrician.
Trust your instincts.
We are plagued by FB posts from other moms whose tidy vegan children eat only kumquats while our progeny snarf down Mac and cheese—Annie’s not Kraft, of course. This makes us feel like “less than” mothers. But remember, those FB moms are carefully curating the version of their children that we see—those posts are designed to make us feel inadequate. And their children still have tantrums and whine in public and melt down at 5:00 p.m.
Avoid judg-y moms. They are a vexation to the spirit
Keep being brave in conversations with your spouse. Pretending things will change when take avoidance to a high art is folly.
The work of raising children and caring for a home works best when shared. If you’re keeping score, your partner isn’t doing enough.
Make times for friends who nourish you. Thank them.
Self-care matters. And you don't need to feel guilty for making time for yourself—it’s essential.
In-laws can be tricky on both sides. There are old habits that claim us. Our spouse may regress to his or her adolescent self; so might we.
A hotel room is always worth it when visiting family for longer than a weekend. It offers a respite, clean towels and a nicely made bed.
Keep asking questions and seeking role models who live the way you want to.
Be brave. Courage is how we fight fear. Too often, I have not said what I needed to say for fear—but fear is a trap; fight it.
The train jolts unexpectedly; suddenly we lurch along, captive on an amusement park ride we did not sign up for—like marriage. We expected a smooth journey, a gorgeous wedding, happy times; we never anticipate the bumps. We pass through the backsides of towns, seeing laundry lines and rubbish, detritus and neglected buildings, paint peeling, windows broken—it’s not a pretty view, but the grittiness is interesting, real, alive.
I see the Art Museum on my left as we jostle through Philadelphia, my old hometown. We discover we have a colleague in common! We are not strangers anymore.
Our conversation turns to screen time, another topic where absolutes do not help us. We marvel at toddlers who can swipe their mothers’ I-phone screens. We swim, temporarily, in guilt, considering, all we can do wrong to wreck our kids. Yet, magically, we don’t. They are more resilient than we fear.
It is hard to raise children without having our own families near by. It is hard to manage aging parents and the compromises that marriage requires. It is hard to manage expectations—our own and those that others have for us.
Eventually, we pull into Penn Station, lug our baggage out of the train and through the corridors to the huge, much less lovely, street level. It’s time to part.
“You’ve inspired me,” I tell my new friend. I’m going to write a blog about our talk. A few days later, we become Facebook friends. A few months later, I recall our conversation. In a quiet Wisconsin dawn, far away from the East Coast, I think of you and hope, on this autumn morning, that you are well, that you are managing, taking care of yourself and your little girl, that you remember you, flawed and glorious like all of us, are enough.