Ashes to Ashes, Mom to Mom

Many moons ago, I was a bright and squeaky new kindergarten mom. I stood in the hallway with the rest of my youthful tribe: fresh faced (mostly) moms, clutching carefully filled out paperwork in our smooth young hands. Several of us were pregnant, a few were wearing Gap overalls in a totally non-ironic way. My hair was dark back then, with no thanks necessary to the fine colorists at L'Oreal. Completely natural. The innocent I was sending off into the wilds of public education that day was my firstborn, Charlie. He was clean and fed and most definitely wearing matching socks. I had taken approximately 250 pictures of him that morning, and was dying to drop off the film at Walgreens so I could get his "First Day Of School" pictures sent out to all the grandparents. Charlie's two younger siblings were there with us as well: Molly was almost 4, Henry was 2. Oh, and I was one of those pregnant ones. Just barely, though. It was September, the year was 1999. (yeah, go figure, the one New Year's Eve we really could party like it was 1999, I was knocked up.)

The school looked huge, our 5 and 6 year olds seemingly dwarfed by the gigantic kids swarming in the hallway. We watched as our babies filed into their respective classrooms, shiny virgin backpacks with nary a rip nor stain strapped onto their little shoulders.

A few of us cried. Some of us smiled, so excited at the prospect of TWO AND A HALF FREE HOURS. A few of us picked up a puddle from the floor, a puddle which resembled a cranky and petulant younger sibling. Those were the ones with TWO AND A HALF FREE HOURS in a thought bubble as well, only in a sarcastic font. Because they knew damn well that exactly six minutes before it was time to retrieve the kindergartner the puddle-sibling would have settled into deep REM stage sleep.

And then there were the other moms. There weren't as many of them, and they kept their distance from our enthusiastic pack.

They were the Older Moms.

I'm not saying these moms were chronologically older, although to be fair most of them were. They were the Older Moms because they had Older Kids. Some of them had one or two or more children in the elementary school we stood in. Others had actual teenagers who went to the terrifying junior high. And there were a couple who had high school kids. When we, the newbie moms, said high school we whispered, because to us they might as well have been on the moon. Or in an old timey jailhouse, like the one Elvis sang about. Thinking of our kindergartners, our babies, being old enough to attend high school was scary.

These women were (mostly) kind, but were not rushing up to console us or invite us out to Mom's Night Out. They regarded us with wise eyes. Knowing eyes. Tired eyes.

Later on I ended up becoming friends with one of the Older Moms. She took a liking to my crazy self and we spent many afternoon pickup minutes gabbing about our kids, our husbands and our lives. I learned so much from her: time-budgeting tips, the Gap Kids store with the best clearance rack, the best (read: easiest) volunteer gigs to sign up for.

But the best thing she ever said to me was this: "Jenny, you'll understand this one day. Probably not now. In fact, when I say this, you'll quite possibly think I'm either a terrible mom or clinically depressed." Dear God. What was she going to tell me? Should I alert the school counselor?

She smiled her sweet smile and said to me: "There will come a time when you get burned out. Believe it or not, it will come. You'll tire of all the 'firsts', you'll dread volunteering and you'll actually look forward to your kids getting older." I looked at her, thinking to myself, whatever. I was born to be a mommy. I am going to volunteer so hard at this school. Teachers will love seeing my kid's names on their class lists. The principal is going to respect me and call me by my first name. My kids will be so grateful to have such a loving, involved mother. This Older Mom is nucking futs. 

And then she said what has stuck with me. Sixteen years have passed since I first heard these words and I can still hear her saying it:

"Then you pass burnout and become a pile of ashes. That's what I am now...a pile of ashes that used to be just like you are now." I looked at my friend, and imagined her as a tall pile of gray ashes. Then, I tried to see myself the same way. Nope. No! Never.


Last week I bought Charlie his very first legal cocktail as we celebrated his 21st birthday at the Japanese restaurant down the street. Yes, I wrote "legal" and not "first". Because I not only used to watch The Real World, I live in it (hausfrau trivia: I almost applied to be on Season 2 of that show. Seriously.) Molly wasn't able to join us because she's half a state away, finishing up her first year of college. Henry, who is now 17 and a junior in high school, was there. And so was William, who was just a bean-sized embryo when Charlie started kindergarten. He's now almost 15. They are all taller than me. One of them by a whole foot.

I was there, too. In all my ashy glory.

Yep. Yes! It happened to me, just like my wise friend had said it would. I too became a pile of ashes. Somehow, when I wasn't looking, someone pressed fast-forward on my life and the children grew up. My raven hair turned about fifty shades of gray and those once smooth, young hands that held all that paperwork are now kind of crinkly and adorned with what I call big freckles but what realistic people call age spots. Don't misunderstand: I still volunteer, to this day, when I can. But it's not with the fiery eagerness I once had. Now I do it because I know in a few years, there won't be any more opportunities. There won't be any more picture days or lost and found to be sorted. My red-hot enthusiasm has been replaced with an ashy sense of obligation, and the sober realization that this time in the lives of my children...this time in my life...is finite. And unlike that pregnant, dewy-complected youthful mama who stood in the hallway outside of the kindergarten rooms 16 years ago, this plump, legging-and-long, flowy cardigan wearing mama can see the edge.


The smell hit me before I saw it. My dog was pulling me down a path at one of our local parks. It was the acrid remnants of a recent fire, thick in the air. We traversed a long bend in the path and came upon a little pond, the home to wood ducks in the summer and fall. Instead of the tall grasses and weeds which normally encircle the pond, there was a ring of scorched earth. Nothing was left save for a few singed stumps and several small clusters of rocks. Because I am Gladys Kravitz, nosy neighborhood nature photographer, I snapped a pic with my phone.

When I got home, I posted the picture on Facebook and asked if any of my landscaping-savvy friends could clue me in as to why someone would incinerate this little peaceful area. God forbid I do anything rational, like call the city and ask, right? That would entail speaking to another human. As I figured, I got my answer almost immediately. A friend who works in the forestry field told me:

It's most likely a controlled burn. They do that to clear out all of the old, weedy plants from the past season. It makes it easier for the new season's plants to grow. Don't worry, Gladys, it's all good!

Okay, so I added the Gladys part. But I thought about what my forester friend had written.

It makes it easier for the new season's good plants to grow.

Motherhood is a controlled burn, isn't it? That's what my Older Mom friend was telling me, all those years ago. We start out as green as a new blade of grass, flexible and full of vim and vigor and collagen. Burnout isn't a fair word, if you ask me. That implies someone tiring of something, smoldering unattended until there's nothing left.

No. I like controlled burn so much better. Because that's what happens. It's a natural progression, one you can't understand...hell, you don't want to understand until the day comes when you look down and realize that time has been preparing you for the next season.

That pile of ashes you see, the one with the grayish hair and the dog-fur sprinkled Old Navy leggings? That's me. I'm one of those Older Moms now. I am trying so hard to avoid being the creepy one who sidles up to you and glazes your eyeballs with my stories that begin with "Back when I was your age". Sometimes I slip up though, and catch myself tipping my head back like I'm a giant Pez dispenser, only instead of candy you get nuggets of Older Mom wisdom.

Please be patient with me. You see, it's scary just like that first day of kindergarten. Scary, and exciting. I don't know what to expect anymore. Time has taught me to never become complacent, to never stop anticipating the big thunderclap of change. I look back at the picture of my three kids and me, four if you count William the fetus. Knowing what the future holds for that woman and her kids almost knocks me on my ashy ass. Not knowing what the future holds for that woman now?

It's keeping me on my ashen toes. 

Love to all of those piles of ashes who went before me, and to those who will follow in our sooty-footsteps. Here's to our new seasons.


  1. Yes, motherhood over the years becomes the refining fire, whittling you down to what might feel like nothing, but hopefully it is creating space for something new. Hopefully. Still waiting...

  2. Thank you for sharing this. Struggling with my ashiness right now.

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  4. . . . Out of the ash the phoenix rises.

  5. Thanks, happy hausfrau! Good post.

  6. Really loved this -- thank you!

  7. Pez me all ya want. Love every word of it.

    Reminds me of a Linda Pastan poem, "Meditation by the Stove" ...

    "And I have banked the fires of my body
    into a small domestic flame for others
    to warm their hands on for a while."

    You're entering a new place. I see the glow of the future ... fan it for yourself this time around.

  8. Beautiful. I'm one of the shiny new ones. Loving my 4 yr. old (but excited for school to start so she has someone besides me to talk to all day) and tell my 6 mo. old every day he's not allowed to get even a tiny bit older because I love his baby-ness so much. I've been terrified for this stage to be over. But reading this made me feel a tiny bit better about the future. "Time has been preparing us for the next season". It's comforting.

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    1. Omg. I accidentally hit delete. This was a lovely comment! Thank you anon. That's what happens when I blog in bed 😟

  10. Thanks for this genuine post. As a mom of 2 year old twins who make the Tour de France look like a cake walk, I often feel ashy. Great to know I am in good company


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