Raccoon fur


April 30, 2024

raccoon paw prints

A mother of three reaches an exhilarating — and slightly bittersweet — new phase of parenting.

essay by Caroline Hamilton Langerman | illustrations by Alice Feagan

Here’s where we are in the story. After the tempest of having three kids in four years, everyone’s a few years older. The wind is whipping, but I’ve got the ropes. I’ve even wrestled back a small amount of time: Once a week, I make a batch of granola. Let me say that again, to the old me who was so shellacked with kids she couldn’t get to the store: I make granola. And look, in my shower, shaving cream is back in stock. I’ve spent eight years bathing other people, but now I’m putting the personal back in personal hygiene. Last week, I chucked some crib-sized mattress pads into the garbage. Pinch me: I am now a mother of “school-aged” children. 

In the afternoon, everyone falls out of the school bus with sauce on their cheeks and blood in their noses and I am the Cat in the Hat, one hand on the wheel, one mitt in the oven, one knee on the ground. Now look what you did! Now look at this house! I’m upstairs holding my nose, picking up dirty nighttime diapers I find stashed behind a chair. I’m scrambling, but even so. So much progress has been made that it’s disorienting. Guilt-inducing.

Over the summer, our 8-year-old went to sleepaway camp and wrote to us in his careful, quasi-cursive, “Dear Family.” He regularly plays nine holes of golf, with a red Gatorade mustache and his little leg hairs blowing around gently over his tube socks. The youngest, who’s self-proclaimed age is “big 3,” buckles her own seat belt and puts on her own swim goggles. “Do you like my eye-muffs?” she asks, and truly, I like them so much I could sing. Even my middle child — the one I needed a parenting book for — has traded in her epic tantrums for epic chapter books. She stops wanting to be a dog and wants, instead, a shiny golden locket she saw in a store. I needed to be softer with her, the book said. But also, I needed to be softer with myself. We were both “good inside.”

There’s one person, though, who is a little ticked off about the perks of my promotion. Not my husband, who pats me on the tennis skirt and cheerfully calls, “Play well!” Not my mom, who says, lovingly, in the past tense, “My girl went away for a while.” The person who resents all this progress is my old, baby-trapped, down-in-the-weeds self. I’m trying to avoid her — which is easy, since I know all her hangouts — but she hears through mutual friends that I’m playing tennis while the kids are in school, and she rolls her eyes. While I’m drinking coffee at my kitchen island, searching for kids’ art projects on the internet, a little message pings in from her, like a text, “Want to meet at the playground?”

I feel terrible, but I admit to her I’ve got no kids home. 

“Lucky you! You made it!”

She’s playing it cool, but she’s holding her breath. I want to wrap her in my arms — I remember being her, just yesterday. She’s pregnant while pushing two toddlers in a stroller. It’s a summer day — no preschool to attend, and the day stretches before her, 12 hours. Her husband is traveling and her mother-in-law just died and her parents have bought a house far, far away. She’s made some friends and found a great babysitter, but you can’t be married to your friends or mothered by your sitter. I’m reaching for her, wanting to tell her she’s good inside, but she’s built a wall around herself, and now she’s gone, puffing toward the monkey bars in her workout pants, texting someone else.

I try to get back to what I was doing. Did you know if you slice a piece of okra, you can stamp the cutest little flowers with it? My daughter will love this. I stamp a little bouquet of okra flowers, pink and orange, then draw stems with a green magic marker. But as I start to draw the grass, I bump into a seed Old Me has planted: Was my stay-at-home life still legit? Did I deserve this freedom and space for creativity I’d grown into? What was I doing — sitting around drawing pictures and writing stories? Is this why people sometimes had a fourth baby? Did people working for money also feel they didn’t deserve the perks of their promotions — did they want to crawl back into their junior-level spreadsheets and coffee runs, after they’d earned their seat at the table? 

Raccoon fur illustration by Alice Feagan

“What color paint is this?” A contractor asks, running a hand down the door of the ancient powder room. It’s a dark color. Not black, but almost — my mom is always mentioning Those Black Doors. Tick-tock. I have no idea what color it is, and I want to get this over and get back to my Creative Time.

“It looks like Benjamin Moore’s Raccoon Fur.”

Raccoon fur?

Something travels through my body — glee.

What are the chances that this would happen to me? Me who loves detail and whimsy? Me who has no life, but now can call myself The Lady Behind the Raccoon Fur Doors.

“Goodbye!” the contractors said. We’ll come again.

And the little ladies left in the rain. And I’m left with sweet, angry old me who is smugly pointing out that I’m having such an easy moment. Who notes that my hair is washed and I’m dressed, chilling with some vendors. She can’t relate to this iteration of me, whose kids ride school buses and mountain bikes. Me who is writing this essay right now in a house where I could hear a pin drop. If I could only put my hand on her shoulder and tell her it’s impossibly frustrating being little 32, always getting stitched back together from childbirth and starting life over again, like a pawn in the game Sorry.

That night at dinner, the kids and I sat around the island and spooned noodles into our mouths. Their dad is in St. Louis or Kansas City or New York. I used to feel alone when I was alone with the kids, but not anymore, not now that we can speak to each other. Today I had no thorns to report and something even better than a rose:

“Something joyous happened to me today. A lady came to the house and told me the name of this paint color” — I walked to the bathroom and tapped the black door — “is raccoon fur.”

The glee — was it hereditary? — crept across the oldest one’s face.

“And it just made me really happy! It tickled me — do you know what tickled means in that context?”

The boy nodded and the girls looked at me wide-eyed, drinking milk.

“Do you know what context means?”

“Yesh,” he said, slowly.

Gosh, I loved how “yes” had morphed over the years. Yesh and yar and yam and yis and yeah. Just for fun, I’d taught them nil and naw and nay.  

“And now I have that! It’s something I have. Do you know what I mean?”

No one did.

“Say raccoon fur,” I instructed, looking at the littlest.

“Raccoon fur,” she said in her chortling racoon voice, and we all clapped and laughed. I was so darn proud of the way they were wolfing down salmon and green beans. Maybe I did have a life. No — I knew I did! I’d had it all along. I’d just had to fold it up and carry it in a diaper bag. It had gotten crumbs all over it and there was sticky residue on the surface, but here it was, thank you very much Old Me for keeping my life tucked right there in the pocket where New Me could find it like an emergency tampon.

I had often been envious of working parents — the way their days were chaotic but varied: hours of grown-up time followed by hours of kid time, repeat. I was seeing that the balance had finally come to me, too, but in longer intervals: years of kid time, followed by years of adult time. Still, it was hard to relax. If I wasn’t suffering, did anything I was doing matter? Could I learn to enjoy this new phase of parenting where the kids were less dependent on me? 

“Alright,” I said. “Let’s take our showers.”

And they literally all marched up the stairs and washed their own hair and put on their own pajamas and read to themselves. Next time I talked to her, I was going to give Old Me the hugest gold medal. She was a heroic yeoman, and I was a pathetic lightweight. I was so grateful for her doing this job for me. 

Of course, my daughter and her friend had no interest in stamping okra slices. No sooner had they dumped their school bags at my feet and ran upstairs, big brother trotted over to shoot hoops at the neighbor’s house. That’s when the baby grabbed the TV remote with her big panda paws and started tapping her way to Disney+, and who was I to stop such a genius? Tentatively, I tried to enjoy the moment. I made myself a cup of tea. Is this how my husband felt when he decided to get a haircut on a workday, and stepped out onto the city sidewalk?

That weekend, I took my freckle-faced, gap-toothed, good-inside daughter to get her something special. She remembered the center rack where the locket hung. She picked up the little cardboard paper that it was attached to, then waved it in my face. Her sister found a sparkly headband and I OK’d that as well. I tried on a pair of cheap sunglasses.

“Those look great, Mommy!”

We took our loot to the counter and exited the store — one wearing a tiara, one clawing at her cardboard necklace holder. I put the glasses on, feeling sort of like a loser but also a little sexy and realizing that at big 38, it was becoming harder for me to tell the difference. “How do you like my eye-muffs?” I asked, and they chortled.

At home, I put the locket around her neck. “I’m giving it to you just because you’re mine and I’m yours. Because no matter where you go and what you’re doing, you have me.”

She squeezed me right around the belt loops of my out-of-style jeans. “I hope this is not all a dream,” she said. “It seems too good to be true!”

I hope that this is not all a dream! Being able to talk to the kids — really talk to them and chortle with them and teach them — is a locket around my no longer stiff neck. I hope I will not awake with my breasts full of milk in a fluorescent pediatrician’s office, freaking out about viral warts from the towels I haven’t washed, feeling like the only sleep-deprived soul in the world. So let me say it, and not feel like apologizing for it: I’m enjoying this stage. And I know, it too shall pass.

Look, it’s raining right now. Drops on the tin roof of the sunroom. There’s a magnolia blossom opening, and I’m remembering that my daughter once sniffed the white petals and said “mint.” Spring is in the air, and the morning moon looks like a synthetic down feather. My kids love that Tim McGraw song about living like you’re dying. But if I live like I am writing, if I am collecting those daily details like nourishment, then I will always be in a good stage, I will always be where I’m meant to be, I will always have myself. Maybe that will be our dinnertime lesson tonight.

Are you still there, Old Me? Hang in there, sweet baby raccoon mom. You will crawl out of the garbage. And then you can write about it — the way it smelled, the particular shade of dark, the way it felt to be nocturnal while everyone else lived in the light. Your strange, striped tale will make a marvelous stamp.  SP

Caroline Hamilton Langerman lives in Charlotte with her husband and three children. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Salon and Town & Country. Caroline is the winner of Charlotte Lit’s 2024 Lit/South Award for creative nonfiction.


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