The Average Mother

Camille T. Dungy - 1972-
The average mother loses 700 hours of sleep in the first year of her child’s life; or, what that first year taught me about America.


Most of us favor one side when we walk. As we tire, 
we lean into that side and stop moving in a straight line—
		so it takes longer to get anywhere, 
let alone home. 

		In wilderness conditions, 
	where people don’t know the terrain, 
a tired person might end up leaning so far into one side 
	they’ll walk in a circle rather than straight ahead. 

It can kill you, such leaning
		—and it can get you killed. 

				
				Rest helps. 


						I told my husband,

I walked in a circle in my mind but you came out okay. 

		Initially, he asked me to clarify, 
	but then he let it go. 

Who wrote that first If You Lived Here You’d Be Home by Now sign?  

		It seems I’m going to have to move. 

	I am tired and also sick 
of helping other people in lieu of helping myself. 

		Rest now. 

It's really not that bad: we’re in the home stretch. 

	That’s the mind of a parent. 
Relentless optimism in the face of sheer panic 
						and exhaustion.

More by Camille T. Dungy

There are these moments of permission

	Between raindrops, 


			space, certainly,


but we call it all rain.


          I hang in the undrenched intervals,


while Callie is sleeping,


	my old self necessary


and imperceptible as air.

Characteristics of Life

A fifth of animals without backbones could be at risk of extinction, say scientists.
—BBC Nature News

Ask me if I speak for the snail and I will tell you
I speak for the snail.
                          speak of underneathedness
and the welcome of mosses,
                                        of life that springs up,
little lives that pull back and wait for a moment.

I speak for the damselfly, water skeet, mollusk,
the caterpillar, the beetle, the spider, the ant.
                                                        I speak
from the time before spinelessness was frowned upon.

Ask me if I speak for the moon jelly. I will tell you
                        one thing today and another tomorrow
        and I will be as consistent as anything alive
on this earth.

                        I move as the currents move, with the breezes.
What part of your nature drives you? You, in your cubicle
ought to understand me. I filter and filter and filter all day.

Ask me if I speak for the nautilus and I will be silent
as the nautilus shell on a shelf. I can be beautiful
and useless if that's all you know to ask of me.

Ask me what I know of longing and I will speak of distances
        between meadows of night-blooming flowers.
                                                        I will speak
                        the impossible hope of the firefly.

                                                You with the candle
burning and only one chair at your table must understand
        such wordless desire.

                                To say it is mindless is missing the point.

Because it looked hotter that way

we let our hair down.  It wasn't so much that we 
worried about what people thought or about keeping it real 
but that we knew this was our moment. We knew we'd blow our cool
 
sooner or later.  Probably sooner.  Probably even before we 
got too far out of Westmont High and had kids of our own who left
home wearing clothes we didn't think belonged in school.

Like Mrs. C. whose nearly unrecognizably pretty senior photo we  
passed every day on the way to Gym, we'd get old.   Or like Mr. Lurk 
who told us all the time how it's never too late

to throw a Hail Mary like he did his junior year and how we
could win everything for the team and hear the band strike 
up a tune so the cheer squad could sing our name, too. Straight

out of a Hallmark movie, Mr. Lurk's hero turned teacher story.  We
had heard it a million times. Sometimes he'd ask us to sing
with him, T-O-N-Y-L-U-R-K Tony Tony Lurk Lurk Lurk. Sin

ironia, con sentimiento, por favor, and then we
would get back to our Spanish lessons, opening our thin
textbooks, until the bell rang and we went on to the cotton gin

in History. Really, this had nothing to do with being cool. We
only wanted to have a moment to ourselves, a moment before Jazz
Band and after Gym when we could look in the mirror and like it. June

and Tiffany and Janet all told me I looked pretty. We
took turns saying nice things, though we might just as likely say, Die
and go to hell.  Beauty or hell. No difference. The bell would ring soon.





With thanks to "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks

Related Poems

Knuckle Head

My son’s head is a fist
rapping against the door of the world.
For now, it’s dressers, kitchen islands,

dining room tables that coax his clumsy, creating
small molehills of hurt breaching
the surface. The ice pack,

a cold kiss to lessen the blow equals
a frigid intrusion, a boy cannot be a boy
with all this mothering getting in the way.

Sometimes the floor plays accomplice
snagging an ankle, elbow, top lip to swell.
Other times it’s a tantrum, when he spills his limbs

onto the hardwood, frenzied then limp with anger,
tongue clotted with frustration,
a splay of 2 year-old emotion voiced in one winding wail.

My son cannot continue this path.
Black boys can’t lose control at 21, 30, even 45.
They don’t get do-overs.
So I let him flail about now,
let him run headfirst into the wall
learn how unyielding perceptions can be.

Bear the bruising now,
before he grows, enters a world
too eager to spill his blood, too blind to how red it is.