On the train Saturday the kids and I were lucky enough to score the coveted “family seats”—four seats together, two and two, facing each other. The train was pretty empty, so we were able to spread out our things over the fourth seat. L., who is perfectly capable of reading for hours by himself, wanted me to read his latest Hardy Boys novel non-stop; then discuss the merits of the latest article in his Flight Training magazine. T. colored and chatted, and colored and chatted. In the seat across from us a well-groomed older man (in his sixties?) sat, talking now and again on his cell phone, or listening to music with Bose headphones. He had a wonderful laugh—the kind that makes you look up when you hear it, and want to laugh out loud, too, even if you don’t know the joke. He talked with L. about the Hardy Boys (“I read every book when I was a kid”) and told T. she was “winsome and witty” (I love the word winsome—how often do you still hear that used?). Then he turned to me, “You’re a busy mom” he told me. “Just such a patient, busy mom.”
His remark reminded me of a time years ago when I traveled with L. and a very small, baby T. on the airplane from North Carolina to D.C. I nursed T. on take-off and a kind older lady across the aisle next to us smiled warmly and maternally at me the whole time—just beamed ear-to-ear. I was hyper-conscious of her stares and her shining eyes the whole time T. wiggled and mewed in my arms as I negotiated the awkward clothes fumbling and side-switching involved in public nursing. Finally the lady couldn’t bear it any longer. She leaned across the aisle to me and tapped me on my arm.
“I nursed all five of my children,” she told me. “Until they were two.”
(I did end up nursing T. until she was nearly two, but at that moment I have to confess I winced a little at the thought of that prospect).
“You’re just a great mom,” she gushed.
I guess I am a busy mom, but no more busy than any other mom. Maybe I’m a great mom too, but not all the time, of course. Many times I’m impatient and sometimes not-so-great—I’m human, after all. Still, when I travel like that with the kids, juggling needs, reading out loud, deflecting squabbles, cleaning up messes, opening up cereal bar wrappers, handing out wipes, combing doll hair into manageable tresses while helping L. find his favorite mechanical pencil, managing near-meltdowns, and positioning tiny bottoms over train toilet seats, I really feel like the consummate busy Super Mom—more so, oddly enough, than when I’m shuttling the kids back and forth to appointments, and racing to make it to late meetings at work. I also wince a little when people dole out compliments about me based on little snapshots of what they see. It’s funny, too, how when you’re a mom, your mom role is almost always front and center wherever you go—it’s what most people see almost all of the time when you’re out with your kids (and sometimes when you’re not.). No stranger out of the blue ever says to you, "oh you’re a busy writer," or "you’re a dedicated teacher," or "what a great music lover you are!" because those facets of yourself are so often hidden.
I’m both baffled by and in love with those front and center moments of motherhood. I know that all too soon my public sense of myself as a mom, and of my relationship with motherhood will slip to one side. Some day, in the far future, I’ll be a quiet elderly woman on a train, reading a book perhaps, or looking out the window at the green and yellow blur of landscape slipping past. I’ll be thinking of train trips from long ago, from the days when I was a busy mom, a sometimes patient mom, and maybe a great mom and I wore my motherhood around me like a bright cloak, front and center, for all to see.