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Leigh Strimbeck

The Mother of All Loneliness

People say a lot of things about motherhood, a lot of things that are true. But one thing that is true for sure is that it’s lonely. Many of us are not living near extended family when we have our kids. The world has changed a lot, and many of us are having children later, after having worked for a while. In my case, I had worked for 17 years doing what I loved before I had a child. And I was completely and happily ready to be home and very grateful for the option to stay home. And we wanted two, so we got back up on that horse as soon as we could (perhaps that’s not the best metaphor?) and when Jan was 9 months old I was pregnant again with Griff. When Jan was 16 months old and I was 7 months pregnant, Joe’s job relocated and we moved here to upstate New York. I didn’t know a soul, and Joe was off to work everyday. The first thing I did was assault people on the street for a babysitter, and what I consider a miracle occurred: I met Laurel, who had 2 children older than mine and wanted to be home for a while after working while her kids were young. She was the person who came over the night my water broke, and she was the boys’ main person until Griff went over to Kindergarten. She was more than a babysitter, she was a business partner, making it possible for me to work in the schools part time teaching Arts in Ed.

But still. I can remember feeling like I needed a babysitter, someone to talk to. You know it’s bad when you call your old friends on the phone, if you can find anyone who has time to talk at all, and you think the talk is just beginning and you hear them say, “Well, I’ll let you go.” Which, in case you don’t realize it, is code for, “You’re talking my ear off and I have to go.” So then there’s the click, and the diaper to change, and the dishes and the laundry and the groceries. And American Theater magazine comes in the mail and I find myself crying while reading it. I used to be part of all that, and its slipping away pretty fast. But still, it’s my choice being home, but like all strong choices there’s a flip side. The flip side is I’m going a little crazy for lack of adult companionship. Now I did talk to the boys all the time, all day long, and read to them and sing to them. They liked my singing until they were old enough to ask me to stop.

And the talking was inevitably a kind of self-narration like this, “I’m just going to fill up your sippy cup and then Mommy’s going to clean your face and get you out of the high chair. OK sweetie? Here I go, woops – Griffie needs a diaper change! Let’s all go into Griff’s room.” Which is all well and good, but when my husband would come home at night I’d find myself doing the same thing, “I’m just going to get up and go into the kitchen for napkins, OK? When I come back, I’ll bring you a nice glass of water – here I go! I’m in the kitchen now!” So there I am, split between worlds, with the mid-day trip to the grocery store a regular occurrence. Now, when you’ve been working all your adult life, you’re not in grocery stores very often, mid-day, mid-week. The first time I was, it was like the twilight zone. “Wow”, I thought, “all these people are out shopping in the middle of the day and they’re moving very slowly.” But now not only was I one of them, it was the highlight of my day. I tried to stretch it out.

In Pennsylvania, before I had kids, I heard women in the gym talking about a new huge store called Wegman’s. They were swooning over the cheese section and the fact that it had a coffee bar. “Well”, I sniffed to myself, “I’ll never get that excited about a grocery store!” Then I had Jan. And boy I loved that place. Put him in his secure baby seat, he’s high up facing me and chatting away, got a mocha latte in one hand, and I’m extending the trip by slowly moving down the bath aisle looking at peach bubble soap like it might be my salvation. And the worst? When I would catch myself humming to the muzak.

By the time I had 2 in diapers I was up here, and there’s wasn’t yet the Hannaford Temple to worship in, but I would go to Grand Union desperately hoping that I would remember the five things on my list, and of course, self-narrating in that loud self-conscious way we mothers do, partly because we are good, verbal parents and partly because, let’s face it, we want the world to know what good parents we are, “No, don’t reach for that you silly, that’s SPAM, that’s made out of unidentified pig parts. You don’t want to eat that. Can you say unidentified porcine parts?”

And it was here, in the grocery store aisle, that things started to get really strange. Because if I happened to see another mother that, according to my superficial standards looked “cool” – was it the glasses? The haircut? The fact that her baby was dressed all in black? I would try to get noticed. I would try to bump her cart every so gently, or just happen to be buying organic yogurt for my babies too. I would essentially try to pick her up. And just like the old days, in bars, when you’re desperate, you don’t score. Because you have that desperate look in your eyes, and it scares people. And I know, for a fact, by mid-day with two in diapers and no adult conversation, I had a very desperate look in my eyes. And she, the cool Mom, would inevitably reject me, and move on down the aisle with her cool baby and her cool life.

Now, by now this world may sound a little sexist, “Where,” you say, “are all the stay at home Dads?” Where indeed. But occasionally I’d see a Dad, and if they looked cool or were even vaguely attractive, and I do mean vaguely, like their hair was combed and their sweatpants were pulled all the way up, and he’s not wearing a T-shirt that says “If you can read this, the bitch fell off”- I lost all skills, terrified that I would start babbling and self-narrate myself into the recycling bin, so I would hide in the “feminine hygiene” section till they went away. There is no reasonable explanation for my sexism (preferring to pick up mothers over fathers) but there it was, and I couldn’t deny it. I needed, wanted, desired the company of other mothers. I longed to know what their life was like before, and how they got through their days now, and how they managed a good haircut and if they were getting any sleep or having any sex. I didn’t really want to know this from fathers. Or maybe I was afraid my maternal chauvinism would rear its ugly head and I wouldn’t converse, I would lecture the poor guy on the baby’s needs. So, I couldn’t be trusted.

I never got a phone number slipped to me in the grocery store.

Eventually, I found a wonderful place called, at that time, Family Survival. An unfortunate name, it sounds like they’re trying to protect you from throttling your children, but not entirely untrue. Especially through the long, grey cold upstate winter. The name has since changed. But that was like a singles bar for mothers. We were all there to hit on each other, and I have made some friends back in Family Survival that I keep to this day.

Leigh Strimbeck

I am an actor, director, writer and acting teacher. My college education included two years at Bennington College and two years at New York University, where I graduated with a BFA in Dance/Drama. My teaching began in New York City 30 plus years ago at the Actors and Directors Lab, and I have taught almost continuously since then. Later, I moved to Sweden where I learned the language, taught theater, and toured with a children’s theater company for a year. When I returned to the US I joined the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble (BTE) in Bloomsburg, PA. There I continued to teach, perform and began directing. Plays I directed at BTE include: FOOLS RUSH IN, VOICE OF THE PRAIRIE, SEA MARKS, THE NEST, DAYTRIPS, THE BALTIMORE WALTZ and DEATH OF A SALESMAN.

During my twelve years with BTE I acted in dozens of plays and served as Ensemble Director for three years. I was a site reporter for the National Endowment for the Arts for five years, and spent three years on the professional theatre companies panel. I traveled with BTE during a USIA tour of Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia. The following year I returned to Zimbabwe for five weeks to adjudicate the National Theater Organization of Zimbabwe’s Theatre Festival and to teach workshops.

Other plays directed at various regional theaters include CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, ON THE VERGE, TONIGHT WE IMPROVISE, THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP and PRIVATE EYES. I co-wrote and directed BERWICK, AMERICA and THIS HOUSE BUILDED, both history plays commissioned by their communities. One man shows: HERE BE DRAGONS, co-written with Paul Outlaw; HEAVY METTLE and WORKING CLASS, both written and performed by Richard Hoehler. Currently I am an assistant professor at Russell Sage College in Troy, New York where I have created and directed two devised theater pieces: MIRROR MIRROR and “I’M NOT A FEMINIST, BUT….”

I am also the co-founder and and artistic advisor of WAM Theatre (Women’s Action Movement Theatre, Kristen van Ginhoven Artistic Director) and I work with the New York State Defender’s Institute as a communications coach for their annual Basic Trial Skills conferences.

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