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I wrote this piece while a Coolidge Fellow at Auburn Theological Seminary during Summer 2013. I applied to be a fellow in the face of my own closeted circumstances: I am a career academic and a single mother, and the two are, more often than not, uncomplimentary institutions.

Almost immediately after accepting the invitation, a nebulous feeling of deceit clouded every corner of the mere 70-mile journey from Connecticut to New York. First there was the apologetic search for family housing. Then, upon arrival, the squirreling away of time commenced: I worked under the bathroom light outside the room where the children slept while others, I imagine, partook in “after research” drinks at swanky, Upper West side night spots.

Also, there was the hush, hush voice in my mind that refrained endlessly: single parenting and scholarship can co-exist, could co-exist, might co-exist, will co-exist. And I almost believed it. But being back in New York among my old friends—most of whom are male, tenured faculty at Columbia—my domestic conundrum was only exaggerated by their blithe, slouchy, intellectual postures. From where I stand, it seems they haven't even the most abstract concept of how prized time is. Lips heavy with definitive pronouncements, they all look like bronze oil tycoons returning from holiday in the South of France. I look milk-stained and sweaty. As I sat with these tensions, my desire to write about motherhood arose.

This particular essay was inspired by a conversation with Jake Goodman, one of the fellows’ “mentors,” who suggested to me that the state in which I allowed my public and intellectual life to reside in relation to my private life was analogous to being “in the closet.” In that moment, as Jake allowed me access to his own coming out narrative, I was able to identify a useful metaphoric and theoretical position from which to approach my own story. My work was being arrested; not by motherhood, but rather by the larger cultural dialogue around professional positionality that made it difficult for me to name, claim, and work within my challenges without flagging them as a handicap. It was the historical (though often invisible) stereotypes visited upon women in the workplace—combined with the even more deeply embedded stereotypes of single motherhood—that shaped the gaze of my professional trajectory. There was, I discovered, a difference between keeping one's life private and keeping one's life secret.

Perhaps a bit satirically, this piece is named for Erasmus's Praise of Folly written in honor of his friend Sir Thomas More. Erasmus's elegy begins as a characterization of the work's antagonist, “Folly,” and ends with a critique of the church—a critique that serves as a catalyst in the Protestant Reformation. It has always been one of my favorite works, and my essay, from a technical standpoint, intends to pay homage to the transformation from frivolity to jaded divinity, as I experience it during twelve hours of motherhood.

There are two things that I want to draw particular attention to in this piece: First, I was interested in the use of numbers to chronicle the feeling that everything is delineated, “timed,” in motherhood. Expiration comes quickly. Its like watching milk spoil in fast motion.

Second, and not separate from the first, many intersections informed the frenzied pace of this essay: like gender (isn't this, after all, a woman's problem?) then race (aren't I always defying the myth of racial mediocrity?) then motherhood, then religiosity (because, as the end of this essay suggests, everything roots back to the presence of the divine).

This essay begins my process of coming out. I regret, only, that I did not do it sooner. Perhaps I could have saved some milk from spoiling.

‘Praise of Folly’ by Audrey Elisa Kerr

We have been up since 5 am, and I am warming milk in a cheap metal pot that burns and sets off the fire alarm every single morning. With the whistle of the one train, I drop an egg. I wipe it up with our one dish cloth and rinse the dish cloth out good enough to be used again, because it's not laundry day. Then I sugar Rice Crispies, and jot down a reminder to buy band-aids, and wipe shit and wash hands. We have no television, but at the moment I set the computer on the small, lop-sided kitchen table and pop in a DVD, I have twenty-seven minutes of work, which means eight minutes for reading and nine minutes for re-reading and ten minutes of writing… except the phone rings and I have to answer, because I respect his work (and he likes mine) and he wants to have lunch and I want to have lunch with him and get at how you write 11 books by age 39—when we were at the same place once.

I'm on the phone now, which is the signal for everyone to disengage from the DVD. First, big girl stands in front of me holding her pocket book, then turns around, and, with her back to me, starts dancing, her bottom rubbing against my elbow. She puts one hand on her hip and swings her purse with the other—then turns her head coyly to the side to smile at me, and wink, and raise her eye brows up and down. I am staring at her blankly and still talking on the phone.

Then, Crumb Cake comes over, belly jutted forward, and lip poked out: the look of discontent.

I know this means a fight is about to begin.

Looking only at me, not breaking her gaze for a moment, she snatches the swinging pocket book from her sister like a cavewoman snagging a bird mid-flight. Please, please, please, please, please, I plead in my head, as I say “Wednesday would work for lunch.” I am trying to hasten the end of the phone call. And I look at Crumb Cake who has just been hit in the head with a flip-flop by Big Girl and she is getting ready to blow and I hold my breath and at the count of 3 I take off running. I am in the closet before her wail lets loose.

He says, “I'm sorry, is this a bad time?” I slide to the closet floor.

We don't acknowledge that we dated. We don't talk about when or if we married, or had kids or slipped deeper into work or slipped deeper away. We schedule lunch and get off the phone and I don't have time now to yell at anyone because I haven't even showered and in 6—now five minutes and fifty-two seconds—the nanny will be here.

I want to pray, but I don't know how to shrink these things into a form that will fit the smallness of my ability to speak to God. And so I'm on my own. Again, I sit and I hold Crumb Cake, tear stains on her cheek, the imprint of a flip-flop fading into her fuzzy hair line.

Then, at two minutes and thirty seconds I dress and the nanny arrives one minute early and someone is crying and I notice a blue magic marker stain on my shirt, but I have to keep walking out the door—sweaty and ambivalent. And I know I am going through the motions, and I wonder if I have given up. But how to surrender when there isn't really a battle ground anymore?

And as I leave the building and wipe my brow, I neatly pack everything I could have done differently or will do differently, or will think about later into the closet: I leave Rice Crispies and flip-flops and screams and broken eggs and burnt milk behind.

It is 4 pm. I'm with my thoughts and embedded in ideas for four hours, ten minutes and zero seconds.

At three hours my flirtation with “research time” and with thinking thoughts will get old. I will miss the children. From here, I cannot see Big Girl hiding tic-tacs where they won't melt—in her cheeks; or Crumb Cake pouring water out of the window, a gift to the over-heated construction workers below.

11 pm. I go to one side of the bed, and they roll, slither, and squirm until they find me. I move to the hard, cool, linoleum floor with my pillow—as I do every night—and fall asleep.

When I awake, six hours later—at 5 am—Big Girl will be sleeping on my back, which is clammy and wet, because she peed on me after falling asleep. And Crumb Cake, whose breath has only recently become sour, will be on the floor too, by my side—breathing heavily, and directly into my nose. And there, on the hard, cold floor, I won't move, because I may never be this close to the divine again.

Audrey Elisa Kerr is a professor of English and Women's Studies at Southern Connecticut State University. Her first book is titled “The Paper Bag Principle.”

Biography

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  2. Biography
  • Audrey Elisa Kerr, PhD is a professor of African American literature at Southern Connecticut State University. She is the author of The Paper Bag Principle (University of Tennessee, 2006) which was nominated for the National Oral History Association First Book Award. Audrey was also a nominee for the Pushcart Prize in American Fiction for her short story “Christian Steinberg is Dead.” She is currently a regular contributor to ForHarriet.com.