Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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Two Sundays ago, I eagerly herded my husband and children out the door to attend our Quaker meeting without me while I stayed home, stretched out lazily beneath our down comforter, watching Andre Agassi play what I knew could be the last tennis match of his career. Earlier that week, he had played one for the record books: an agonizing five-setter against Marcos Baghdatis that left Agassi standing, but just barely. He won, but required multiple cortisone shots over the next week and was hurting so badly after that match that he had to lie down on the ground and rest as he was making his way to the car.

I still remember when Andre was simply an upstart "kid" from Las Vegas, just a guy with big hair and an even bigger attitude; now at Flushing Meadows, he was "the old man." At age 39, I'm of the same generation as Andre. I remember when his crazy, orange-blonde hair and wide headbands were cool, and loved him before he filmed those flashy"Image is everything" commercials. Much has been written about Andre's growth as a player and as a person, about his philanthropy, about his decades-long move from a place of image and ego to one of substance. I watched it all unfold: the classic matches, his kindness to young fans and players, his grace under media pressure, the divorce from Brooke Shields, his marriage to Steffi Graf, and the birth of his children. Understandably, I wanted to be watching when my old, favorite player went "out" in what I hoped would be a blaze of glory, though I really didn't want him to go "out" at all.

That Sunday morning, the match ended with a loss (the "old man's" body had been through too much earlier in the week) at the hands of little-known German Benny Becker, all but wearing a black cape and a handlebar moustache. When the match was over, the crowd went mad, Andre burst into tears, and I sobbed with my pillow clutched to my chest. I cried for Andre; I cried for all the aging superstars. I cried for me.

Several months ago, I noticed one of my hands as it flitted through my peripheral vision while performing some ordinary, rote task -- something it does without me thinking about it, probably dozens or hundreds of times a day. I don't remember what, exactly, my hand was doing -- perhaps stuffing clean dishes in the cupboard or brushing my daughter's hair out of her eyes (again). But I remember doing a double take. I remember thinking "What the --?" licking my thumb and trying unsuccessfully to rub what looked like a smudge of dirt off the back of my hand. Weird. What are those things that look like age spots? It took a week for me to realize the offenders were, actually ... age spots. It's clear: I'm getting older. Maybe even I'm getting old. Forty is right around the corner. And while my aging might not come as a surprise to some people -- say, for example, my children -- it's a hell of a shock to others. That is to say: me. It's not that I didn't know I was aging, exactly. It's more that I've been busy doing other things: wiping counters, wiping bottoms, wiping noses. Then, BAM! I'm wiping an age spot.

At a press conference after the match, Andre said that the life of a professional tennis player is hard, that everything has a price. When he was training, he missed his family; and when he was with his family, he worried that he should be training.

He could easily have been describing the predicament of most mothers: how to do the endless work of physically caring for our children while also remaining fully present for them. How many times have I told my sons and daughter, "I can't ______" (fill in the blank: "watch 'Curious George,'" "play upstairs," "walk around the block with you") because I felt obligated to clean the kitchen, do the laundry, pay bills? While there are water bills to be mailed and dinners to be cooked, there are also games of Candy Land that must be played and long afternoons that cry out to be filled with nothing. I forget this when there is too much work to be done, too few hours in which to sleep.

Like Agassi, I volley between stress and guilt. When I'm working, I feel guilty for not engaging fully with my children. And when I'm hanging out with the kids, I feel stressed about the work that isn't getting done. Yet there are moments--rare and sacred--when our family somehow manages to just be. I used to think of these as stolen moments away from everyday life. But of course I was wrong. Of course, these are the moments, ultimately, where life truly happens.

After Agassi's U.S. Open loss, a reporter asked if he was at peace. Andre replied, "It's something I strive for every day. I don't know about tomorrow, but today I am at peace." It was the kind of wisdom that comes with age -- gently reminding me that those spots on my hands aren't just marks to tolerate, but signposts pointing to the substance and beauty I forget to see: in dirty laundry piles and burnt Eggo waffles, a six-year-old's backtalk and grape jelly kisses. The very stuff of a mother's life.

Shari MacDonald Strong is the editor of The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change and wrote the column Zen and the Art of Child Maintenance. Her essay, “On Wanting a Girl,” appears in the anthology, It’s a Girl, and she has been published in a number of publications, including Geez magazine. Shari worked as an editor and copywriter in the publishing industry for 15 years. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, photojournalist Craig Strong, and their children: grade-schooler Eugenia, born in Russia, and preschool sons Will and Mac, born via gestational surrogacy.

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