The flight attendant drops her wings. They ping on the ground as she walks by checking the cabin before our flight. They are brass and feel heavy in my hands. The pin is bent and pricks my palm as I hide it in my lap. I want to keep them. I am a thirty-two-year-old mother of two children. But right now, I am alone on an airplane from Chicago to Portland, with an overwhelming urge to do something completely out of character.
My trip is an escape. I am on my way to a week-long writers conference. It is a chance to slough off the skin of mother and wife for a week. To be seen as an individual, a writer. To be responsible only for myself.
I have no business stealing the wing pin. I don’t really want it. But as the plane takes off and we hover over the land, I want to be, just for a moment, without context.
When people see me, they see a mother. I do my best, but the signs are all there: diapers falling from my purse, Cheerios stuck to my wallet, a Dora sticker on my ass. Most of my days are spent in the company of two small children, who demand cheese sticks, games of hide and seek, and always seem to have some remnant of a barely-eaten meal stuck to their cheeks. Each moment is a small drama, with a narrative arc that seems to capture all of life’s greatest struggles. “My Brother Wants My Fairy Wings” is a story of howling desire, capitalism, pain, and sibling rivalry. And it all takes place in two yowling minutes before the “My Sister is Taking Up All the Room In The Whole House And Needs To Stop Breathing On Me” story commences.
I write in moments that feel like plunging underwater. During naptime, while the baby sings himself to sleep and my daughter plays with her toys. Before she demands a computer game or the baby wakes up yelling for “Waffles!” I write in the afternoons when I turn on the TV, hand out snacks, and put the computer in my lap. The baby steps on the keys and pokes the buttons on the screen with his chubby index finger. “It not working!” He yells. He thinks the computer is a touch screen. I don’t bother telling him it isn’t. Instead, I hand out fruit snack after fruit snack, until they are gone and my daughter hits me in the head with a foam sword. “I’m a pirate!” She yells. “Mommy needs five more minutes!” I tell her. But I don’t get them.
I write in the mornings, when after a run, my thighs stick to the office chair as I type out a sentence or two and before I hear yet another holler for waffles. Or at night, after bedtime, while I listen to my daughter sing herself a song, the chorus of which declares “when I am a mommy, I will neber put my kids in time out for pushing each other!” I write on Saturdays when my husband is playing with the kids and while I feel guilt in my stomach for ignoring them. Sometimes, in order to write I hand off the iPad to my four-year-old to sneak in a few moments of writing until the guilt consumes me and I return to her.
Before I was a mother, I was a writer. Before I wrote about my children, I wrote about books, politics, and sex. No one really read that work. It was rejected a lot. I gave essays to my friends for critiques and they politely handed them back telling me, “It has promise.” Later, when I had my daughter, I still wrote about politics, sex, and books, but I also wrote about her. That was the writing that got published. So I wrote more, enjoying the publication but resenting that I had to use my uterus to get there. I told my friend from college, who read many of those early essays, that I now exploit my uterus for money. I meant it as a joke, but some days I worry that it isn’t.
“Maybe parenthood just made you a better writer,” she suggests. “I like your writing so much better now.”
I’m angry at the implication that I needed children to write well, but also flattered by the compliment.
I once held fast to the feminist narrative that having children wouldn’t define me. But I know that they have. I didn’t want children to change me, but the reality of my new self is inescapable. Pregnancy and birth pushed and pulled the corners of my body until I look like someone else tried on my skin and then gave it back worn and stretched. But whoever that person was, left her marks elsewhere too—I wake up to phantom cries of children in the night. In the mornings, I instinctively pat the bed to find stowaways. I never leave the house without money to give to any empty hands I come across on the highway or outside the grocery store, because one time my daughter asked why we didn’t give that man money when he asked and I couldn’t give her a good reason. I always have snacks and Band-Aids in my purse whereas before there were only books and pens.
I used to write listening to classical music. Now, when there is silence, I sink into it. I stretch my fingers out and luxuriate in the quiet, like it’s the hem of an expensive dress I’ll never buy because someone will smear it with Cheetos. It makes me feel grateful for the quiet and resentful that I am grateful for something so simple.
I sit on the plane holding those brass wings. I want to keep them because I knew that in my everyday life, I would never steal them. But in this moment, I want to believe that anything is possible. That I am capable of anything.
I look up and see a mother with a boy who seems to be about my son’s age. She’s coaxing him to be still. Holding an iPad and a sucker, she coos in his ear, words that I’m sure were, “Be still and be good and you can have a treat.” I know them intimately.
The boy screams and kicks the iPad. He jumps from her lap and runs up the aisle. I put my arm out and catch him. He is bewildered. Then, his little hands turn into sticky fists. I can feel the rage coming. I hold out a pen and find paper in my purse. “Here, do you want to color?”
He grabs the paper and pen and runs back to his mother. She thanks me and I find myself explaining that I too have a boy that age. A boy who likes to kick and run and scale the cabinets. How we had to hide pie and cookies in the freezer. How he once ripped a cupboard door open, even with the baby locks on.
The next time the flight attendant comes by, I hand her the fallen wings.
I am not that person.
On the airplane, I want to escape what surrounds me, but I can’t. I’m suddenly aware of the sagging skin of my belly. The girl next to me keeps wiping her nose on her sleeve. I wish I wouldn’t have emptied the tissues out of my purse before I left so I could give her one. There is a man with yogurt in his beard across the aisle. He could use a wipe, if only I hadn’t left them too. Behind me, a man yawns loudly. A bored girl plays with the bright beads in her hair. And that naughty little boy who reminds me of my son runs up and down the aisles, between his mother and me.
What does it mean to have context? How do I express my inner self when my outer self is wearing princess stickers and a dress chosen by my four-year-old daughter who heard me tell my husband I was nervous to leave them.
She came tramping down the stairs dragging a black and white knit dress and a necklace.
“Being fancy will help you be brave,” she told me. So, I changed out of the yoga pants and ironic t-shirt I had chosen for the trip.
Surely we secrete our secret selves through our skin in ways we do not always recognize. For now, writing my children is writing my body. It’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins.
Parenting books tell me that I ought to draw healthy boundaries between myself and my children. But I once read that cells from the fetus stay inside the mother long after the child is born. Scientists don’t know what those cells do to the mother exactly, but they do know they linger forever in her heart and in her head. These cells make a mother a chimera—a mythical creature composed of disparate parts. But how can they be disparate when they are part of who you are? I also read that my children have my cells in them too. We are all chimeras.
I told my husband, this writing trip would be “a chance to really focus on my writing, you know. Without someone interrupting me to say that lions are coming out of the wall, again.” I believed it would be a chance to be “myself” again. That woman without Band-Aids, diapers or distractions. When I got to the conference, I heard the author Maggie Nelson advise the writers in the room to, “Sit down and write an essay that begins ‘Today my body.”
Alone, without my children, in a room with no distractions, I did what she told me and I wrote about my children. I felt both betrayed and heartened. I had come on the trip to be more of myself, but when I searched inside I found them. It made me feel like I had become the stereotype of the codependent mother I had feared becoming. It also made me feel like I had more lives than just my own in me and I wasn’t trapped by them; instead, these bits of them in me made me free.
I have my children in me, their cells nestled in the throbbing center of my body. I also know that I am not the only one with multiple selves coursing through my blood. I return the running boy to his mom. I return the wings.
I know being a mother does not limit me. But I also know that it defines me. These artifacts of motherhood—spit up and stickers, boogers, and waffles—these are my landscape and my context in the same way Yoknapatawpha was for Faulkner—a physical manifestation of an inward landscape. I will write beyond this, I will write through it and out of it. My torn nails. My weak pelvic floor. The burn of my lips as I suck them into bite between my teeth.
After I get off the plane and sequester myself in my week of writing, I find myself hovering over a pile of books in the campus bookstore. The books are authored by the workshop faculty. I want them all. I have five in my hands. A friend looks at me and laughs.
“Get more,” she says.
“I would, but there will be a reckoning when I return to real life.”
A woman nearby overhears. “This is your real life,” she says. “All of it.”
I think again of the flight attendant’s wings. I am glad I gave them back. I return home with twelve books. I make no apologies. I hug my children. I am glad for the week. I am glad to be back. I know I do my best work surrounded by the waffles, the dog-eared pages of feminist theory, bright plastic cars, and silver wands.
Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.