Quiet Hours at a Small Table: A Café Junkie Has a Child
by Ginny Kubitz Moyer
When I was expecting my first child, I noticed a trend: Everyone loves to tell pregnant women how much their lives will change. “Go to movies now! You never will again!” cautioned a good friend. Whenever I mentioned that I love sleeping in, experienced parents would flash me a look that was part-warning, part amusement: You can kiss that habit goodbye, their raised eyebrows seemed to say. The more frank parenting books warned me that motherhood would impact [obliterate] my sex life, and from my own friends with kids, I learned that planning a day out with the girls would take as much strategizing as a military campaign.
All of this sounded daunting. To be honest, though, the thing that worried me most – more than the movies, more even than the sex – was how to hang onto my café life.
I’ve been a café junkie since college. The habit really took off during my semester abroad in Paris, where I discovered the joy of a quiet hour at a small table. With a tea or lemonade in front of me, I’d write letters or fill my diary or read – or often just zone. Though the dollar was weak and my budget was slimmer than the Parisian women strolling by on the sidewalk, I found creative ways to fund my habit. I darned my tights relentlessly rather than buy new ones; my dinners were cheap sandwiches from marginally sanitary sidewalk vendors. I funneled the money saved into those solitary hours in cafés, where something inside me relaxed, uncoiled, and expanded.
Back home, the love affair continued. As I entered grad school, became an English teacher, got married, I worked café time into my usual routine. I became a devotée of Peet’s Coffee and Tea (any guilt I felt at frequenting a chain was assuaged by the fact that it was a local chain, born right across the bay in Berkeley). Their tea – hot in winter, iced in summer – was strong and dark, and I loved the atmosphere, with its classical music and the white noise of muted conversation and hissing espresso machines. Being there mitigated the burden of grading endless analyses of how the scarlet letter makes Hester a strong woman or why Gatsby is not really great after all.
The best time was always when my schoolwork was done and I’d pull out a novel or a writing project. As in Paris, I’d stare out the window from time to time, letting my thoughts come at their own pace. The scent of coffee would cling to my hair and clothes, the incense of the café, which was itself my personal sanctuary. At two dollars a pop, it wasn’t cheap, but I rationalized it by the fact that while some women buy shoes or purses, I was purchasing the ticket to a few hours of solitude, a place outside of myself where I could go more deeply inside.
Fast forward a few years, to the summer before my son is born. I’m seven and a half months pregnant, feeling massive and unwieldy, grunting every time I have to bend over. It’s a sound that I am apparently unable to control, which is disconcerting. On a hot afternoon, I’m driving away from a sojourn at Peet’s, where I’ve lost myself in an Elinor Lipman novel, and brainstormed some writing ideas. Suddenly it hits me: My café days are numbered. Hard as it now is to get out of the car, it’ll be even harder when I have to lug a baby, a stroller, a diaper bag, and all the other gear that moms schlep around. It occurs to me that it will never again be as easy as it is now to take my child somewhere I want to go. Will my café life evaporate, without a trace?
That thought is terrifying to me.
My fear was not really about giving up the Earl Grey with lavender. It’s a larger issue: the fact that I’m an introvert, one who draws energy from solitude. As a kid, I was always happiest in my room with a book, or sitting alone somewhere where I could think. Rainy days thrilled me, with their quiet streets and pervasive calm. I have a strong memory of one stormy day, when I was 5 or 6. Happy in my raincoat and red Snoopy boots, I took up my clear vinyl umbrella, and walked back and forth in front of the house, slowly, totally content. I stepped in the gutters, letting the currents of rushing water swirl over my feet, savoring the experience of being alone. But then the little girl across the street came out in her raincoat, and it was ruined. I made polite conversation for a time, then offered a juvenile excuse – my mom needs me or some such – and went inside, the magic gone, left to wait for the next rainy day.
I’m not sure I’ve changed a whole lot. Yes, I love my friends and my family and my teaching job. But without time alone, I feel lost. Those visits to the café are the adult equivalent of the rainy day walk; it’s where I go to wade into my subconscious, to let the deepest parts of me swirl to the surface. It’s not the same thing as being quiet at home, where I am distracted by the computer or by the breakfast bowls with rings of Raisin Bran crusting their insides. A café is the perfect balance of being both in the world and out of it. At my little table, I’m a quiet island in a sea of outside activity, which only makes my solitude all the more intense.
But when an introvert has a child, there’s a sudden challenge: Someone needs you all the time. The quiet pools of solitude just dry up. I was dimly aware of this before my son was born. Lowering my pregnant body into the café chair, I had the unsettling sense that life as I knew it would be forever changed.
And it was. When my son Matthew was born, I marveled at this diminutive person who had lived inside me for months, the silent café companion whose gender I hadn’t known until he was lifted, crying, out of my open abdomen. His head of dark hair was thick and glossy, like an animal’s pelt, but also appeared perfectly styled, with a neat part on one side – “a sporty little haircut,” my dad called it. For the first few weeks, I had lots of help. My husband was often around, as was my mother; friends and family kept coming by to visit. For once, this introvert loved having a constant stream of people in and out of the house. It was a thrill to share my little boy with them, these emissaries from the outside world. I found them to be a major help as I navigated the new world of breastfeeding and bathtime.
Then one Friday, two weeks after Matthew’s birth, my husband returned to work and my mom to her daily life. A friend came to visit, bearing healthy new mom snacks: chamomile tea, Fig Newtons®, dried fruit. She held Matthew, who was mellow and sweet. Then, just as she was about to leave, he began to cry. Loudly. Uncontrollably. My friend threw me a look of deep sympathy before returning to her 1-year-old twins.
So it was just Matthew and me. I tried nursing him; he cried. I walked him back and forth; the volume went up. I put him in his stroller, fiddling with the unfamiliar straps, and pushed him up and down the entry hall, and he screamed even more. My desperation and helplessness grew. I realized, for the first time, that I suddenly had a job at which I was not only untrained, but spectacularly unsuccessful. I was trapped in the noise and in my own incompetence.
Thankfully, a binky calmed him, and he dozed off. I sat in a tearful heap on the couch, cradling him in my arms, afraid to move for fear of waking him up. When my husband arrived home, he took one look at my crumpled, tear-ravaged face, and said the three little words I longed – no, needed – to hear.
“Go to Peet’s,” he said.
So my first café visit as a mom took place at 6 pm on a Friday. At a small table in the corner, I gathered up the shreds of myself and my nerves. It was like a tranquilizer, being back in that quiet space. I had brought my journal, and when I was calm enough to put pen to paper, what I wrote about was Matthew. After gushing about his stylish hair and cute profile, and after some scribbled venting about the afternoon’s trials, I started writing the story of his birth. For a blissful hour, until my breasts got huge and painful, I scrolled back through that morning two weeks earlier and recorded what it was like to become a mom. I only got as far in my narrative as the moment when my parents came in to meet their grandson, but I felt like a new woman. I was on familiar ground again – writing, thinking, dreaming.
Miraculously, two days later, I worked in another brief café visit. As I sat down to pick up the thread of my narrative, a mother and her son walked into the café. She was nicely dressed, in heels and a long skirt, as if coming from work or church; the boy was 8 or 9, a pudgy boy with a buzz cut and a black T-shirt. As she held open the door and they came in, he was in the middle of telling her something, and they were both smiling broadly, as if the anecdote amused them.
It was like seeing a sudden flash into the future. One day, that would be me and Matthew, stopping by together after school. My café life would expand to include him, a thought which gave me a sudden, sweet ache of well-being. I can only describe it as a kind of reverse nostalgia, a lovely flutter of the time when I could integrate parts of my life more successfully than I was doing now.
Two years later, I can see that on one level, the integration had already begun. My little dark-haired boy was a part of those quiet hours, because when I went more deeply into myself, what I found there was him. At my quiet table I wrote about the shifty-eyed expression he got while nursing, the bandy legs that he pulled up reflexively whenever someone touched his stomach.
Beyond that, as I waded back through those past weeks of new motherhood and wrote about them in my diary, I identified new aspects of my inner self that Matthew’s arrival had brought to the surface. There was the disorientation I felt at the overhaul of life as I’d always known it, but I also found a primal sense of protection that made me hover over his bassinet and make sure he was still breathing. Since he came into my life, I’d known the deep pleasure of holding my tiny boy on my knees while I sang along to the lullaby CD a friend had given me – a transformative moment in which I cut through the postpartum blues and discovered the joy of merely being in my son’s presence. My introvert’s life was not the same. It never would be again.
As the weeks unfolded, Matthew became part of my café routine in a more obvious way. In the early afternoon, I’d bundle him in a blanket and knit cap and we’d head to Peet’s, where he’d doze in his stroller, the hood pulled down. I’d write at the small table, peeking in at him from time to time. He was nearly always asleep, his binky like a jewel in the middle of his face. It felt nice, like a long-married couple who can sit together at a restaurant table doing crosswords or reading, not speaking to each other, but nonetheless enjoying being within the circle of the other’s presence. I thought back to the old days, when I’d been afraid that I’d lose my café time entirely. With a sense of relief, almost of triumph, I realized that I’d been wrong. You can combine motherhood and your favorite routines, I thought to myself. Why hadn’t anyone ever told me that was possible?
Of course, one thing I’m learning about motherhood is that just when you get things figured out, something changes. In my case, Matthew got older. At around 6 months, the café time grew more difficult; he’d no longer doze reliably, but would instead wave his hands, whining, needing an outside stimulus. A java jacket or toy would keep him satisfied for a time, but then he discovered the joy of dropping things. And as weeks passed, he got more bold; he’d grab for my hot tea, which I’d have to whisk far out of reach. Slowly, I found that writing became impossible. I can still read a magazine, though, can’t I? I thought to myself with a kind of hopeful desperation. When I could no longer polish off more than two short paragraphs without him clamoring for my attention, that old sinking feeling crept into my bones. Our shared café days were over.
Now, at almost 3, I don’t take him to cafés at all. He’s an inquisitive boy, a man on the move; the last thing I need to do is keep running behind the counter to grab him before he gets into the baristas’ coffee-splashed path. So I go to Peet’s only when someone else is watching him. I no longer grade at all during those times. The essays are shoehorned into random moments at home, when Matthew is napping or absorbed in drawing irregular circles on old computer paper.
Those café hours are too precious to waste on anything other than pure introspection, the writing and thinking, the dreaming.
Do I wish I had more of this me-time? Absolutely. Sometimes I look around at other tables, seeing people who appear to be single and unencumbered, and I envy them their apparently limitless solitude. At times I think wistfully back to my own past, when I used to be able to settle into a table and stay as long as I wanted.
But motherhood is all about phases. Someday, the current character of my days will change. I think of the mother and son who came walking into Peet’s together, laughing in synch, and in my mind’s eye I can picture a time when I do bring Matthew back. In my imaginings, we’re sitting together at a little table. Matthew is 6 or 7, legs dangling, bent over a library book or a spelling worksheet; I’m jotting writing ideas in a notebook. His hair still does a wild cowlick, and his big blue eyes are absorbed in the task in front of him. I’m sipping the tea that I no longer have to keep carefully out of his reach while he licks the whipped cream off of a hot chocolate. We chat every now and then; I answer a homework question or help him sound out a word, and my heart lurches with love that the newborn with the binky, the little guy who used to hurl java jackets onto the floor, is sharing this moment with me. He too is discovering the joy of a quiet hour at a small table, a table that is big enough to seat us both.
|Ginny Kubitz Moyer is a writer and teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her husband and two sons – Matthew and new arrival Luke. She’s the author of Mary and Me: Catholic Women Reflect on the Mother of God, which shares women’s candid thoughts on the world’s most famous mother. Visit her blog at blog.maryandme.org for thoughts on raising boys, trying to maintain a spiritual life, and loving Jane Austen.