99 Problems A dark-haired toddler wearing only a striped shirt plays on their tummy on a wood floor

Published on April 4th, 2023 | by Kate Tellers


I Hope That What They Hear is a Song

My daughter has a tiny green plush square with a stuffed frog head sewn to one corner she’s named “Owl.” Like clockwork, every night just before her bedtime, with the promise of a few hours of my own dangling just on the horizon, she loses him. We walk through the house calling out “Where is Owl? Where could Owl be? I wonder if he is in the kitchen?” It’s not cute, it’s not a game. I am Sisyphus and this is my rock. We search desperately, heat rises in my body, we find him, she goes to bed, a day passes and we push the rock up the hill again.

Sometimes I wonder how much time, in total, I’ve spent looking for Owl. My daughter is three and a half. Allowing for the few months in the beginning when she was not mobile and could not, for example, shove Owl into the dark space we barely knew existed between the bathroom sink and the tub, at even ten minutes per night, we’re at over ten thousand minutes that I have spent circling my home looking for an anthropomorphic napkin. Imagine the book I could have written, the undecided voters I could have swayed, the pasta I might have rolled by hand. I could have been a contender or, at the very least, I could have hunted and trapped my own living owl. Instead I circle my home in a sing-song rage; how is this plush towelette with thread-eyes missing again?

Basket of stuffed toys, including a Madeleine doll and a smiling frog, on a pastel rug

Everyone warned me when I was pregnant with my first child. “It’s a love like you’ve never known.” And indeed when my son was born it felt like every way I’d ever loved before was the Before Times, and this love was vaulting me into my Technicolor Era. I was out of my head with love. I emailed friends, “My heart is like a flashlight but instead of light it shines love” and “My heart is a marionette, he holds the strings and makes me dance.” I know I was loopy from deafening exhaustion, but those words do ring true.

At the same time, I unlocked a new capacity for rage. It was as though my body, while growing my children, simultaneously spawned a sophisticated internal network. Upon the smallest provocation, this matrix would light up, zapping white-hot anger to every piece of me. The result: damp neck, dry mouth, shallow breathing, tunnel vision was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. Worse, very quickly, it started to feel familiar.

So many things could trip it. Of course: his crying. Crying when I would leave the room, crying in the middle of the night, crying so loudly that my neighbor heard him through the walls and wondered aloud about a hernia. Losing one tube for my breast pump and rendering it useless, losing a pacifier, losing anything I set down even for a second because I was so fucking tired, losing myself. I punched pillows and kicked the door frames of load-bearing walls. I tried to rent a Zipcar so that I could have a quiet solitary box to howl at my therapist. I found, somewhere in the dregs of Amazon, a noise-canceling microphone designed for people who wanted to practice karaoke discreetly in public. Its key design element being that it fits tightly around the singer’s mouth and holds in the sound. I considered buying it for rage screaming.

Two small children play on either side of a beaded outdoor curtain

A few months after my son was born, on one of our early morning walks with the dog, we stumbled upon a park in our neighborhood. Somehow I’d never turned left on this block before, and in front of us was an urban oasis. One half was a big green lawn where people holding reusable coffee mugs played with their dogs, on the other a playground with slides, numerous swings, and a big cast iron seal that sprayed water out of its snout, which often caught the sun just right and made a rainbow. Very quickly it became our go-to spot.

It was there that we met a family who introduced us to the first daycare we enrolled in, where we went to our first birthday party with a donut dangle, and where he learned to ride his scooter. But one day, as I gathered our things to go, he refused, first by running away and then by screaming. “No, mommy, NOOOOOOO!” I reached into the rolodex in my mind and tried every tactic – I reasoned, empathized, drew boundaries, and clawed through my bag for an applesauce pouch to outright bribe him, but nothing worked. His baby sister fussed against my chest as we both started sweating. I could feel the familiar anger swelling through my body. When his screams were so loud I felt like I couldn’t see, I broke.

I picked him up with my one free hand, and shoved him sideways against my waist, perpendicular to the ground so that I could push, in spurts, the stroller he refused to get into. He flailed against me, banging against his sister, so that they were now screaming in chorus. I stomped out of that park with two children thrashing against me. I was not gentle or “maternal.” I could feel the other parents’ eyes on my back, hyper-aware that this ugly part of me that I birthed with my children was rearing its head for the first time in public. I stumbled home in a cloud of fury, at first at the impossible situation, and then what lingers still, my anger at myself. I had expressed it in an ugly way, I let it out. It’s been several years and we’ve never been back to that park. My anger is a monster I am constantly dodging.

A child's medium-brown hands with light pink fingernails rest on a paper towel

In the six years since becoming a parent, I have had to accept that this identity bounces me often between an infinitude of love and a black hole of fury. Maybe I believe that one extreme can’t exist without the other, to temper one would dampen the other. I’m addicted to the highs so I wrestle the lows.

I carry my daughter up the steps for bed and marvel at how she still tucks herself into my body, what it feels like to have her tiny arms around my neck. She says, “I loves you, Mommy” and all I have ever wanted is to be just that, in that precise moment, forever. But then a minute later, as I hear my son topple a succulent with the basketball he’s not supposed to throw inside, she shrieks, “WHERE’S OWL!?!” and I’m off on my hunt. I don’t kick door frames anymore. I’ve learned deep breathing, and I lacquer my voice so that it’s my own manic one-note recitative in the opera of my life, “I don’t know? Where is Owl? Where could he be?” and the furious search begins again.

A small, light-green cloth wing pokes out from the folds of a white blanket with pink hearts

I start with the obvious: the folds of her rainbow blankets, under the formidable buttocks of a huge stuffed unicorn she got when she was fully potty-trained, in the space beneath her bed where most of her hair ties live. As I expand the radius outward—to the couch in the living room, underneath the kitchen table—I make a mental list of all the things I will do tomorrow to make absolute certain that this doesn’t happen again. I will take possession of Owl immediately after breakfast. I will make a special bed for Owl. It will be a project that we do in the tiny window of time we have on weekdays, the golden hour between dinner and this time when everything falls apart.

As my frustration mounts and my skin heats, we do our volley. “I need Owl/where is Owl?/I NEED OWL!” I vow to read every book, every website, to click on every Instagram story that will teach me how to be a parent who doesn’t feel like they are in a tenuous tango with disaster every single night before their child’s bedtime.

I steel myself for the surges; the light outweighs the darkness. The most important thing to me is what my children will remember. I want them to look back on their childhood and say “I had a mother who laughed,” “I had a mother who sang songs about my belly button, who made the best scrambled eggs.” I don’t want them to pull a string on a Chucky doll and say, “Hey, wait, that sounds like her.”

This summer we went swimming with some friends in a crystal clear lake surrounded by mountains. My son and I blew up two inner tubes and floated together, linked by holding onto the far ends of his beloved critter catching net. As we got out to the lake’s center and drifted, quietly, all by ourselves, he said, “Mommy, I think I’m going to think about this for a long long time.” Yes, buddy, that’s my biggest, most giant hope.

At the very least maybe “Where could Owl be? Where could he be? Where is Owl?” will just be a song.

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About the Author

Kate Tellers is a storyteller, host, senior director at The Moth and co-author of their most recent New York Times best-seller, How to Tell a Story. Her writing has also appeared on McSweeneys and The New Yorker. She lives in Brooklyn and makes her own sparkling water (not bragging).  More at @thekatetellers.

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