I took home an unexpected lesson from my daughter’s Curriculum Night. I didn’t just learn about the kindergarten’s objectives. I learned that my compulsion to be absolutely everywhere for each of my four kids — and on time! — could kill me.
I’d left my apartment with plenty of time. It was U.N. Week in New York and the President was in town. Why this international conference has to happen in the middle of Manhattan in mid-September has always been a mystery to me. Why can’t these world leaders head out to Hicksville for the week?! But I factored that in and left twice as much time as I needed to get across town. My 6-year-old had been telling me all about watching her puppet show video presentation for days. She couldn’t wait for me to see it.
As I kissed her goodbye, she reminded me proudly, “Don’t forget to listen for my part in the puppet show!”
“Of course! I wouldn’t miss it!” I vowed.
Thirty minutes later I still hadn’t even gotten across Central Park. It was 5:57 pm. The presentation started at 6:00 pm. I had debated getting out of the car and walking for a while, but traffic had been inching up enough that I still thought I could make it.
But now? Not a chance. I was freaking out. I couldn’t be late! What if I missed the puppet video?!
“I can’t miss this!!” I exclaimed out loud, frantic.
“Then you better run,” my driver said.
I was wearing the same outfit I’d worn earlier that day to host a 40-person book event for my podcast, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books:” a long wool tan skirt, a navy and tan striped sweater, navy Vans, hoop earrings.
Yes, I’d jogged 3.5 miles the preceding weekend but I’d done so at such a slow pace that elderly power-walkers had whizzed by me.
I had no choice. I opened the car door and burst out, grabbing only my cell phone, a credit card and a $20 bill, which I promptly dropped on the street, only to have a kind gentleman tap me on the shoulder to return it.
And then, I was off. Instead of wending my way through the beautiful tree-lined paths of Central Park, I decided it would save time if I headed into the cars-only transverse at 97th Street. In I went, onto the narrow, bumpy sidewalk, bopping up and down alongside the long row of cars stuck in traffic. As a native New Yorker, I’ve driven through crosstown transverses a zillion times, but I’d never walked — let alone ran — through any of them.
Now I know why: it was friggin’ scary. Cars were zooming so close I could feel my skirt swishing. Horns blared. Brakes squealed. It was dirty. No one else was on the sidewalk except for one pack of teenagers who had just finished playing basketball. I ran as fast as I could. Part of me knew this was a bad idea but there was no turning back.
Midway through the dash, as I started getting tired and winded, I noticed that the cars headed my way were finally being allowed through the park. If I could just flag down a car and hop in, I could get out of the transverse quicker! After 10 minutes of sprinting, my 43-year-old body, more accustomed to a leisurely 30 minutes on the elliptical machine, was slowing down. And it was already after 6:00 pm. The puppet show!!
I ran to the other side of the transverse and waited in the middle of the road to wave over an approaching car. I couldn’t see any cars coming, so I figured I had time to run a few more feet before turning around again. Next thing I knew, I seemed to be inside of a car horn; headlights were two inches from my face and multiple horns were honking at me.
Holy crap. What was I thinking?! I was attempting to hitchhike — in the transverse?! And I’d almost gotten hit!
“Okay, okay!” I said out loud (to no one) and dashed back to the other side.
I finally emerged from the park. As luck would have it, the car I’d jumped out of had miraculously made it through and had beaten me! My driver knew the policeman in charge and had been waved ahead of the pack. I could’ve stayed in the car! I hopped back in for the final three blocks, blasted the AC on max and tried to cool off. Sweat was dripping down my back like my daughter’s slowly melting ice cream cone from that afternoon. So much for looking put-together for the new class.
“Breathe! You gotta breathe!” My driver said as I panted frantically.
I tried to take in big, gulping breaths. I mean, come on. How pathetic! I ran track in seventh grade. I couldn’t make it through a measly 12-minute sprint?!
By the time I got to the school, I could barely speak. The lovely, kind, Lower School Principal greeted me at the door and said gently, “It’s okay! Don’t rush! It’s just starting now!” Um….
I raced up the stairs and plopped down into a tiny wooden chair, smushed in between two other parents. It was 6:15 pm. Somehow, I was still there in time to introduce myself with the others. But then I started coughing. At first, it felt like pieces of dust were stuck to the back of my throat. I got up to take a sip of water but it didn’t help. The dust wouldn’t go away.
“Now I’m going to show you the puppet video your kids have been working so hard on,” the teacher said proudly.
I couldn’t breathe. I kept coughing.
“Are you okay?” a mom friend asked, concerned.
I coughed and nodded.
Then I thought, “Wait, am I okay?” Did I have a cough or was my throat closing up? Sometimes my body has an allergic reaction when I run too soon after eating. I’ve repeatedly broken out in hives so now I always run early in the day on an empty stomach. (Or not at all.) An evening sprint is not what the allergist ordered.
It was getting harder to breathe but I didn’t want anyone to notice. As I watched the infamous puppet video, I started doing mental calculations. Could I get to my preferred hospital ER with all the U.N. traffic? No. Did I have an Epi-pen with me? No. Would the school nurse be working this late? Probably not. How long would I have if my throat was closing up? Would an ambulance be able to reach me? How could I tell my kids I wasn’t coming home tonight? My husband was on a plane to LA. Should I go to the hospital or was I overreacting? What if I made the wrong decision… and died!?
I could feel myself getting paler and paler. A friend finally reached over and handed me a Poland Spring bottle. I feel like she saved my life. I drank the whole thing, slowly, and tried to calm down.
“Please don’t close up, please don’t close up,” I told my throat as I took in less and less air. Was I getting worse? Better? The same? I tried to sit motionless and inconspicuous but inside I was panicking.
Could I be having a heart attack!? Was this the end?! If so, what a terrible way to die! I could see the headlines: “Mom Dies Trying to Get to Curriculum Night on Time!” The articles would talk about the unnecessary pressure moms put on themselves, how hard it was to juggle kids, work and life, how many mandatory parent events there were these days. And how could I die right now!? I was so happy! My podcast was starting to take off! Agents were interested in my book ideas! Exciting partnerships were in the works! I was in love and newly remarried! And my kids were only between ages almost five and twelve years old. I couldn’t leave them for an evening let alone forever. Could I really die from one stupid decision?
Meanwhile, other parents sauntered in throughout the presentation with slight nods to the teacher, not stressed at all about being late. One dad arrived five minutes before it ended with a smile on his face. Seriously?!
After the event, I told a fellow parent what had happened and that I was still having trouble breathing without coughing. She said, “Wow, I was almost an hour late but it’s my third child so I honestly didn’t even worry about it. I’m surprised you did!”
Well, it didn’t matter that it was my third kid. It could’ve been my eighteenth kid; it was that kid’s big night and I didn’t want to let her down. I didn’t want to miss something (anything!) she cared about. I wanted to be the perfect parent to her. And, I realized, I wanted it so badly that I was willing to put myself in harm’s way to achieve it.
As I sipped herbal tea in bed later that night Googling my symptoms (I think it was exercise-induced asthma but who knows), I decided I would be fine. This bronchial condition was common. I would survive!
I’ve tried to hold on to the important lesson from that day: I simply have to pick my battles to survive. I have to be okay with being late sometimes. I have to acknowledge that some things are out of my control and that being a “perfect” mom is unrealistic and unattainable. I can’t be everywhere and do everything perfectly without it taking a serious toll on me. My daughter obviously would have been far worse off had I not come home at all than to have missed the video and calmly explained that things happen to mess with our plans despite our best intentions. Perhaps she would learn the lesson now that I am just teaching myself.
But let’s be honest. What I really learned was that from now on, I’m wearing a sports bra during U.N. week.