In the rental car, returning to the city from a weekend out of town, we run into the inevitable Sunday-evening traffic at the end of the Jersey Turnpike. I am dying of a few different things – car-boredom, car-exhaustion, car-bottom, pee, and anxiety because we are almost out of gas. We just make it into that last service station on the turnpike with maybe two drops left – every time my husband slows down, I figure we’re stopping for good now – and there are long lines at the pumps. A good twenty minutes in line, then back onto the turnpike into a jam-up at the turnpike toll, then into a jam-up at the George Washington Bridge. My husband, in the passenger’s seat now, furiously calling friends to try to figure out if a show has already started and, if not, if there are still tickets. My mother in the back seat with the fussing baby, alternately cooing at the baby tiredly and peering into the front trying to figure out what my husband is talking about. “Is he going somewhere tonight?” she asks me – a perfectly natural question, but in my weary ears, it seems to drip with judgment. My husband finds out that the show started twenty minutes ago. He sighs and I think confusedly that it might be my fault.
If it were a year ago, I would start a fight right now. I know the words I could say to do it. I could turn to my husband and hiss, “Why didn’t you take care of it days ago?” I could turn to my mother and whine, “Leave us alone! It’s none of your business!” And then we’d be off, maybe momentarily pleased to blow off steam and be distracted from the traffic and road, but then quickly trapped in the horrendously warped logic of arguments, furious at each other and ashamed at ourselves.
But I don’t do it. I don’t even let myself say the fight words in my head. I’m the mama now, I tell myself, blinking away tears of frustration and exhaustion, and the mama has to keep it together. I say it to myself, then I say it out loud a couple of times. “I’m the mama. I’m the mama.” Inspired and considerably cheered, I try something else. “OK, family,” I tell the windshield, “we’re going to be home soon! Just hang in there!” My husband and mother probably think I have gone crazy, but they don’t say anything, and it makes me feel better to say it, so I say it two more times. We are over the bridge and on the West Side Highway. Everyone begins to breathe. We are on Broadway – we are on 145th – we are on Adam Clayton (this, not this) – we are home. My mother brings the baby up, my husband and I unload the car. My husband returns the car, I pick up the dog. We order veggie pizza. My husband feeds the dog. I take the baby to the bedroom and he nurses to sleep, clutching my shirt and patting my tummy with his feet. My mother sets up the air mattress. We have not fought, none of us. I think I have matured about 100 years in the past seven hours. I’m the mama now.