The search for self-compassion

Toren has been crying non-stop all morning and insists that he be allowed to watch me cook from the top of a stool where he will surely burn himself. Avery, for some reason, has been eating a craft stick and her hands and mouth are covered in blue dye. Eirik must have procured my car key the last time he was on the countertop because the car has auto-started and all the lights are flashing. 

Every object we own is on the floor. I sling breakfast as quickly as I can; using my hip to check Toren out of the way while I flip pancakes. We are all tired today, which means that the kids are hurting each other, and I am emotionally thin.

Pancakes are served. I wait to see if a hush will befall the room as kids shovel food into their mouths; or if the food will be rejected and thrown on the floor. Reception is not exactly arbitrary – some pancakes are better than others – but I can’t always predict what will happen.

They eat. Briefly. Then Avery starts kicking the cabinet. I ask her to stop. Nothing. I tell her that she needs to stop if she wants to continue eating breakfast. Kick. Kick. Kick. I remove her from the table – roughly and by the arm. I return just in time to see Toren hauling Eirik away from the table – roughly and by the arm. Ugh.

The gift I most want to give my children is that of my own varsity-level self-regulation. I want this for their benefit but also for the sanity of our family. My kids do what I do far more often than they do what I say.

Knowing how to self-regulate means that you can deliberately get yourself out of fight-flight-freeze and bring higher-order brain functions, like language and empathy, back online when you need them. It means that even when you are flooded with emotion, you can re-center and respond to the situation from a place that aligns with your values, rather than freaking the f%*$ out.

Self-regulation doesn’t come easily to me. As a seven-year-old I received the grade N in “demonstrates self control,” which is basically an F for first-graders. What were my crimes, exactly? I don’t know. At school I mostly talked too much; but at home I definitely yelled, hit, and threw occasional tantrums. It was all normal kid stuff, I think. Never did an adult suggest a healthier way of working through my anger, anxiety, or fear. We didn’t talk about emotions back then. It was the 1980s. A kid out of line could shape up or ship out.

Thirty years later, I brought twin baby boys home and my husband went back to work in a different town. Avery, age 3, suddenly had to share me with not one but two babies and she was jealous. She bit them, and would sometimes finger-pop the corner of Eirik’s mouth to make him bleed. If one baby needed a diaper change, I took both of them to the bathroom. I had no idea what to do with my big kid or her impulses.

I talked to friends. I did some reading and podcasting. Everyone said the same thing: Your big kid needs love. Once she knows she hasn’t lost you, she’ll come around.

Having one of your kids hurt another one of your kids is the worst. For three months, I took a course in Peaceful Parenting, and earned a star on the calendar every day that I managed not to react to Avery in anger. I reframed my perspective to see what a hard time she was having. I found that the vacuum breathing I did for the separated muscles of my core also helped me to calm down. I breathed like that all of the time. The best apology is to change one’s behavior.

For a while, things got better. I became more skillful, and Avery outgrew the wilderness of toddlerhood. But then the babies turned into toddlers and it all became too much again. At present I feel all of my effort at peaceful parenting being swept away.

The calendar fell off the wall today and I looked back through the months. In May, when Avery was in school half-time and the twins were epic nappers, I had 15-hours a week to myself. There were notes in those margins – grocery lists, meal plans, and ideas for writing projects. As long as I kept moving everything got done, and I had a fairly good time doing it.

Nothing has been written on the calendar since June. Even if I had a thought, I wouldn’t be able to find a pen.

My poor body is pumped so full of cortisol that I don’t sleep and I rarely feel hungry. I can’t poop unless all of the children are sleeping. I forget when I last showered; so I shave my armpits each time as a sort of timer. Whenever I see that I’ve grown a full chia pet, I get in.

According to doctors’ recommendations, I should reduce my stress, sleep more, eat better, exercise (at all), re-claim my creative outlets, and meditate; but I don’t have time for any of that. As another twin mom told me, “I have to find a way to take care of myself so I can keep doing this.”

Let’s be clear: In most moments of most days, my kids are lucky to have me as a mother. They come to me when they are hurt, scared, proud, sad, tired, or hungry. They see my shining eyes. They feel loved.

My anger is never about one thing. It is forged out of a steady accumulation of incidents – small and large – all day, every day. Tantrums eventually end, and that knowledge is enough to get me through. What wears me down is the perpetual chaos, and knowing that it’s up to me to move our family through the mess, without ever giving in to my own pain and frustration. Nine tantrums this morning; that’s what I’m up against.

Parenting isn’t the hardest job you’ll ever love; it’s the hardest job, period. Do your best to love it.

In the not-so-distant past, I didn’t understand ‘mom guilt’. I patted myself on the back, thinking myself immune to this all-consuming maternal emotion. But then I learned that guilt is inversely proportional to shame. When shit goes wrong, a person either thinks “I did something bad,” which is guilt, or “I am bad” which is shame. You either have one or the other. Ugh.

I am grateful for people who speak openly about how frequently (constantly) parenting is hard; rather than implying that hard times come as isolated incidents, involving one child, and wrap up with a big red bow. Overwhelm is a perpetual, impossible dance. I am forever trying my best, falling short, noticing I’m still the only adult around, and getting back up to dance some more. I would much prefer to lock myself in a dark room and make love to my phone.

Research shows that shaming ourselves when we miss the mark is a good way to ensure more poor behavior in the future. This makes sense: When I flog myself internally, shame tenses my neck and worries my mind. I am all the more coiled; all the more tired and burned-out; all the more likely to snap.

Shame hisses: Are you sssssure you want to talk about thissss?

Yes. The more personal a story, the more universal it is. Shame only exists in secrecy. Casting stories into the light transmutes their power from isolation into connection.

If you want to love children in their worst moments, then you must first extend that warmth to yourself. I did some reading and podcasting, and learned that without self-compassion, a person cannot be fully compassionate with others. You can’t give what you don’t have.

When I am unkind and impatient, I feel anxious. Regrets cycle around, and I have a hard time clearing them from my mind. How am I supposed to move from this into a place of self-compassion?

It’s hard to accept others in their mistakes when you haven’t experienced that way of being for yourself. I took a quiz and learned that self-compassion does not come easily to me. It seemed the closer I got to an antidote, the farther it moved out of reach.

What I need, is an imaginary, ideal mother. I render a Mother Earth figure in flowing white clothing. When I mess up or the cyclic thoughts spring up, she opens her arms wide. Come to me, my child, she says. You’ve treated someone poorly. I will help you feel better so that you can do better.

One of the best tools I have found when my kids get out of control is the pause. I don’t always know what to do from there. I am still looking for the right magic words to convince my body that there is no threat – only the children who grew inside of me and whom I love with every fiber of my being – but the pause is the right place to start. If I can stop myself from reacting for even a moment, the situation becomes far less important. This is not an emergency.

It’s very hard on me that I don’t always get this right. The ideal mother touches me on the shoulder. It’s okay, she says. You messed up, but we all mess up. You’re learning, and I know you will do better next time. I love you, just as you are.

When I succeed in getting grounded, I teach my children that mama is someone to trust; rather than someone to fear. You feel mixed up and scared but you’re safe, I say. I am here. You don’t have to be calm; because I am calm. Let me take care of you.

I may never figure out how to prevent myself from being tipped off-balance, but when I pause, I can sometimes regain my center quickly enough that my children never need know that I left it.

My kids are fast and curious. If a mess can be made, they will make it. If an object can be broken, they will break it. Still, each of them deserves a childhood of exquisite tenderness.

I invented the ideal mother as someone to call on in difficult moments. I am surprised to find that she also comes in wonderful moments. When I am cuddled up with my kids and reading; when we are riding bikes in the driveway, when I hold their hands for a dinner breath before a meal, when I get them out of the bath and find a way to gently brush their teeth even though they don’t want me to. She’s there, smiling upon me. Great job, she says.

Something else happens that initial morning after breakfast. I think Eirik dumped something out of the spice cabinet. As I run to him, Avery yells, “Mom! Don’t get angry!”

I pause.

I’m not proud that my five-year-old feels the need to help with my self-regulation, but it was super helpful. I pick Eirik up and start into my arsenal of mantras; You’re safe, I tell him.

But something strange happens when I say those words out loud — it is as if I am saying them to myself. I feel instantly better. Of course. You’re safe. These are the magic words.

Pushing myself to unearth unconditional love for children pushes me to love and care for myself. You are worthy of love and belonging, I say. Nothing you could ever do would make me stop loving you. Through self-compassion, I am becoming my own ideal mother.

***

Twins: 23 months

Avery opens the front door and yells, “Mom! Eirik and Toren are going truck’in!”

If the strider bikes are available then it doesn’t take long before my twins are gone. Sometimes I lock the bikes in the garage or hobble the brothers by sending the outside without shoes until I get out there.

Photo by J. Curry

“Which way?” I ask. She points across the meadow. I know at a glance if they’ve made it to the paved road because any passing vehicles slow to a snail’s pace. What would you do if you saw baby riding his bike on the road by himself?

The kids need supervision but I need to clean up the fall out from the two full cereal bowls that hit the floor this morning. Sending them all out for a few minutes alone is all I’ve got. Unfortunately, a few minutes is all it takes.

Other children go truckin’ once or twice in their toddlerhoods. My twins escape once or twice a day. I spoke with a mother of adult twins who remembers the same problem. “I learned to make use of attractive nuisances,” she said. “Set up something great halfway to the road. Some new toys, maybe? Or a coffee can full of Oreos? Anything to slow them down.”

So far, no vehicles have stopped. “Grab your bike and go after them,” I say to my five-year-old. Meanwhile, I grab some water, snacks, spare diapers, wipes, and the stroller, and hustle to catch up to the adventurers. Thus the day begins.

A neighbor told me about the time his toddler son took off on a strider with the dog at his heels. When dad caught up, he asked the boy, “What were you thinking?!”

The child looked at him straight-faced and said, “I just thought I was my own boss.”

I’m not sure when a child becomes their own boss but I am interested to know what words little people find important to master. For my guys, the list includes go, bird, duck, dog, shirt, pants, bowl, spoon, chair, truck, bus, ear, socks, box, book, hold, up, down, hug, water, milk in cup (bak!), buckle, cracker, cookie, waffle, syrup, cold, outside, other-shoe, and let’s go!

They are also finding ways to communicate bigger concepts – I’m hot; take off my jacket?I’m sick and my ear hurts. I don’t want a blanket. Can I play with water? I’m not wearing a diaper and I need to go potty. My brother pooped. Move this big bike, please?, I love you. Can I wear this backpack? Will you put this diaper on my head like a hat?

The brothers often remind me of funny dude pairs from the 1990s: Wayne’s world. Dumb and dumber. Beevus and Butthead. Bert and Ernie. Of course, what they think is hilarious is pushing the dining room table around, walking backwards with their eyes closed, spitting water, quickly shaking their heads back-and-forth, yelling, and letting their feet slide wider and wider apart until their droopy diapers hang to their knees.

At this juncture, all of the helpful systems that worked for these guys as babies are fading with the setting sun but there don’t seem to be any function-able big-kid systems appearing on the horizon.

They refuse high chairs and lids. They won’t be buckled into strollers or high chairs. They insist on getting their own water and take the lids off of their cups. They hate diapers but aren’t quite ready for potty training.

I tried to interest Toren in potty training by teaching him to pee off the porch. He stood there for a few minutes with his pants down, but nothing happened. Without missing a beat he switched gears and spat instead.

Eirik keeps us all laughing. Whenever the room goes quiet he’ll look at me intentionally and pant like a dog or hop like a frog. When I need to brush his teeth I get silly so laughter will open his mouth. He can’t help himself. It’s like that scene in Roger Rabbit where the ‘toon can’t help but finish… shave and a haircut

Eirik is skinny and wiggly and especially good at escaping from buckles. I have a habit of loading the twins up in the car so I can finish getting ready for the day’s adventure. By the time I return with the sandwiches, Eirik will be in the front seat “driving.” He killed my car battery twice last week.

I buckle him again, tighten the straps again, but he only laughs as if to say, You expect that to hold me?

***

Mothers and mountains

I am eager to get back to the mountains. The Chugach range – the wild spine behind Alaska’s urban center – is the place where my heart lives and where my feet long to go. The tundra is open, and I need no map.

Strangely, I haven’t been able to see myself in the city work-week hustle so I haven’t lived in Anchorage for a long time even though I love to recreate there. Instead, I make my home in quiet, rainy Southeast Alaska. There’s a ridge race in Juneau I want to win someday. I’ve competed in but never won anything like this before. Not even close. Now, after a decade of pregnancies, walking flatlands, swinging in hammocks, and preschooler-paced bike rides, the odds may be tipping in my favor.

Antidotal evidence suggests that a woman becomes a stronger mountain runner after she’s had a baby. I naïvely thought this was because of the challenge of childbirth. Perhaps, I thought, the reservoir of strength she discovers in those wee hours before her baby’s first cry might later be used to push her up and over mountains.

Giving birth is heroic – it is nothing less. But a mother’s courage doesn’t come suddenly as she opens and passes a baby into the world through the portal called cesarean surgery or the ring of fire. Her running prowess isn’t earned by carrying an additional 30-lbs on her back for a couple of years or the return to racing in an older age bracket. What makes a mother into a mountain runner is not the sprint of birth, but the parenting marathon.

Parenting is the perfect training ground for a runner. It teaches a determination that grows more tenacious with exhaustion. As a mother I have grown my children but also my patience, resourcefulness, and perserverance. I have learned to take myself more lightly and appreciate every day, no matter the weather.

In youth I found myself in the mountains by default. Friends took me blueberry picking… first as a sixth grader and then as a 16-year-old looking for a reason to sneak out at night. If I make it back it will be through a series of intentional acts.

I never was as fast as my friends. But that was before it made sense to me to wipe snotty noses with my fingers. Before it would’ve occurred to me to pick up a piece of poop off the floor with my bare hands before anyone could step in it. Before all of my babies got the flu and the best solution I could come up with was to catch as much throw-up as possible on the front of my shirt each time they vomited.

If I hadn’t had kids, I never would have known what I am made of.

Parenting isn’t the hardest job you’ll ever love – it’s the hardest job, period. Do your best to love it.

Healthy or sick, fast or slow, gentle or mean, respectful or disrespectful, intrigued or bored, picky or flexible, charismatic or awkward, popular or excluded. Kids go through seasons while, like contortionists high-stepping through training routines, parents run alongside and figure out how to get through it. These are fairly run-of-the-mill life challenges. You can always level up.

I look forward to simpler days. Like when I can set a breakfast table without the silverware turning into an involved geometric design that I am not allowed to disassemble. For now, I get out for a walk by myself whenever possible. Put on shoes. Open door. Close door. Continue in straight line. Turn when you want to. It’s nice to do something that makes sense for a change. Maybe after this, mountain running could be easy, too.

Working out once took very little initiative. Now I have to coordinate childcare with my partner, plan dinner, promise to be home before bedtime, and deal with the guilt of missing a family evening.

Exercise is precious. I can’t believe that for a long time I expected a 90-minute workout every day. When my first job out of college didn’t get me out of the office in time to run in what little daylight February has to offer, I almost quit. Then daylight savings-time happened, and everything was fine.

Sometimes my children feel like energy vampires. They take everything I have, until I am a dry husk of a woman. Workouts, by comparison, are such a concise and reciprocal effort. I invest time and sweat, and in exchange I am given hunger, thirst, muscle, and endorphins. Beginnings and endings are clear. I am not left to chug along endlessly.

Parenting is the first job I’ve had that I can’t quit. Late at night when my husband gets frustrated, he hands the crying baby back to me. I stay as long as it takes. The buck stops here.

Mountain running will be a lot harder on my body than it was in my 20s but mentally I’ve never been stronger. Willingness to do hard physical labor for sport might depend on the same parts of the brain used for cuddling, teaching kids to share, and not getting pissed when the children think mama scrubbing on hands and knees is a good time for a horsey ride.

The kids eat five times a day; so I spend all of my time cooking only to spend the rest of my time cleaning food off of the floor. I throw a few lunges in while I’m down there so it’s not a total loss.

This practice of cooking food only to clean it up reminds me of a few weeks when I lived in an ashram in India. We meditated, practiced yoga, sang kirtan, and cleaned toilets. Chores were meant to diminish the ego – I knew what I was paying for. But when a man who grew up in the ashram sat and read the newspaper every day while guests cleaned I could not handle it. The sight of him lounging filled me with rage. I am sure he did it on purpose – to teach us that opportunities for spiritual growth come in many forms. Only, did he have to enjoy it so much?

I am without yoga these days. I need to stretch but I can’t remember how to begin. In my mom life, where every minute is filled by the needs of others, I dream of going on retreat. One day I will return to the ashrams, temples, yoga camps, and meditation centers to sit among beautiful people, wise teachers, and singing birds. Canyons of calm will open within my being. There will be no anger based on who is, or is not, scrubbing toilets. I will already have done my work.

When the pandemic started I had a little girl and was pregnant with twins. For two years I have been a full-on, full-time mom wondering

What is life driving me toward?

Into calm. Into perspective. Into family. I dare say I barely enjoyed my 20s for fear that I would never have a family of my own. My husband and kids filled a deep and pressing need. Now, with sense of purpose and belonging more than covered, I find myself emotionally free to explore the world but practically as tied down as a damsel on a railway track.

How much time before my children grow into happy, functional, resilient, carefree, and contributing people?

I want to bicycle across Southeast Asia eating Pad Thai from every street vendor I pass. I want to speak Spanish fluently and teach in a foreign country. I want to write books, and read books, and learn to tango with a single, red rose clutched in my teeth. I want all of these mountains and more.

What do you long for?

I don’t know why there’s so much rattling around in our brains that we don’t speak about. It seems silly to me. I’m lucky that I got the family I wanted. But when all is said and done, I can’t help feeling that there is too little of me left for me.

Are we more afraid that wishes spoken aloud won’t come true or that they will?

It’s hard to understand which dreams should be left for dead and which could still be realized if I just wait five years… ten years… twenty years. Maybe the dreams could be worth pursuing in the future even though the longing is pointless.

Is it possible to hold space for dreaming and let go of longing?

I imagine other lives but I have never imagined myself out there doing something else and longing for the life I have.

Looking at the front of my body is like reading a river. The skin of my breasts and belly flows downhill and parts ways at the boulder of my belly button.

I have been many places.

Once, I had a childhood. It happened, and without announcement, it ended. I cannot pinpoint the day. Then, I had an adulthood; complete with good friends, achievements, regrets, and everything in between.

Adulthood ended with the arrival of my children; but I didn’t know it was over until my dog died and youth became a memory. Childhood belongs to my kids now – but I get something too: parenthood. Instead of comparing what I have with my adult life before children, these years get to be their own special thing. An experience. For me. This changes everything.

I have a friend who did well in mountain races. If I close my eyes I can see her thin frame jogging away from me; high school ponytail keeping time with the rhythm of her pounding feet along a dirt trail. Twenty years later, after everything non-essential was stripped away, she is a mother. The determination that once carried her up and over mountains pours into the basic tasks that fill every minute of every day. Instead of the freedom of the hills, she lives for love of family and commitment to her higher purpose. Once one who ran up and over mountains, she has become the mountain.

Parenthood re-orients my perceptions. I find solace in the slow, sweet cultivation of things. A great day is not about mileage but about time spent outside, watching kids grow, and teaching them to love adventure. When I get back out there I will want summits. Even when I don’t make it to the top of those mountains, I hope that I will be happy. Because I am, and it is good.

***

How can I help?

Our family attracts a lot of attention when we travel. My husband usually boards an airplane first, carrying Eirik. As he walks down the aisle I hear passengers murmur… How sweet… How cute. They are charmed to see dad carrying our baby instead of mom. Then Avery passes by, and me, and finally Toren on my back. The ripple shifts to surprise… Oh! they say. There are two!

We are a family of unicorns. This is what I call, showing off just by showing up.

Can I help? The simple answer is, Yes, of course. But it’s not that simple.

I often need five minutes of help; like getting through airport security, running late, with one baby in a carrier on my front, the other on my back, and all of the important documents in my four-year-old’s backpack. I would gladly materialize another adult out of thin air in these moments if I could but I can’t. Hopefully the TSA agents are feeling friendly.

Many strangers have seen me coming and offered to help me make it from point A to point B. I understand: I look like this and you are a good person. In one way, I have an extreme set of life’s circumstances. In another way, I got this. I don’t need you to bump our luggage cart over the curb. And to the airport stranger, who picked up my wallet and coffee from where I set them while I strapped a baby onto my back, I hate to be unpleasant, but stop that. Often, the times when I look like a walking train wreck are the times I most want to be left alone.

If my kids are about to run into traffic then please scoop them up and out of harm’s way. But if our greatest danger is a toddler kicking off his boots, then thank-you for asking, but no. There’s nothing you can do.

Everyone has an invisible struggle; yet it’s hard to know what any of us can do for another. Small tasks done reliably are always good. Empathy, or a well-timed “me too” are always good. Little cards are always good. Childcare is always good.

I am stubborn but I ask for help all the time. My parents hosted us for months while we waited for the twins to be born. A stranger held Eirik as a lap baby on a 30-minute flight to save me the price of another fare. Grandma took the twins every afternoon for a month so I could teach Avery to swim.

Sometimes help shows up in unexpected ways. During the first year of my twins’ lives a friend sent flat-rate boxes of individually wrapped books for Avery to earn. My co-mama homeschooled my daughter with her child during the second year of Covid. Someone gave me a double stroller worth as much as my first car. People I barely know have covered bases I didn’t know I had.

Even when I know I need help I don’t necessarily understand what to ask for. One long, hard day, when the twins were a few months old, Avery was in a mood and dumped a blender full of wild strawberry purée into the dog bowl and my patience ran out. My brain flatlined; I couldn’t remember how to sooth children. I no longer cared to know.

I yelled until all three kids were crying then I put Avery down for a nap. I rocked the babies in their car seats until they fell asleep, and then I sat down on the kitchen floor and asked myself, What do I need right now? Who can I call?

I didn’t want someone to talk to because I couldn’t explain. I needed someone to sit with me – in silence if need be – without thinking me fragile or unfit. Someone who would believe in me, care for me, hold me accountable as I got through this day, and then never bring it up again.

A person finally came to mind whose footsteps steady the wobbling Earth. She knows hardship but makes a point of light-heartedness. She refrains from gossip. She brought me dinner a few times when my husband was out of town. So I called her.

Just having a witness helped. When Avery woke up I apologized and set her up with a cartoon and snacks. I cleaned the house. My friend arrived and we sat on the floor until everything was okay again.

I do more than one person should; I keep the balls in the air but only just. The question of help triggers a deep current of vulnerability in me because I can’t afford momentary lapses in vigilance. People look out for me – I can catch a break now and then – but I almost prefer not to. When I sit down, it is very hard to get back up again.

Theoretically, I would welcome a second adult soul with whom to tag team and share all of this with but I don’t have time for it. My walk yesterday with two other women was cut short because of a twin throw-down. I left half-running down the trail while they wailed.

Alone, I can feed and diaper two babies, throw in a load of laundry, and make a muffin. I can play with my kids or spend the hour more interested in a podcast and that is fine. Isolation is how I do it all. I’m happy to see you, but when you come around I get behind on podcasting. My chores linger and I forget to prep dinner. I semi-ignore my children, and they act accordingly. No one gets what they need.

When you’re here, I feel pressured to be the kind of good mom who cares for others to her own detriment. I guess I rather like pulling all the shifts. In this role, where I give everything I have and expect nothing in return, I am enough.

I know this isn’t healthy. I want to let go a little, let other people into our life, and make some friends before I become a dried-up husk of a woman.

It’s just that adults come with their own needs. There exists a standard for adult company whereby the house is clean, there’s something real for dinner, and crying is quickly and easily solved. Even my husband’s comings and goings must be accommodated. By myself, I just roll with the kiddies.

I like the idea of teamwork, but in practice roles are rarely well defined and it is almost impossible to carry out without things getting lopsided.

Say I’m with a high-achiever. She slings snacks and deep-cleans the kitchen while the kids fold origami. She works like the children are paying her and never stops to do anything for herself. There is an air of superiority about her as she judges my housekeeping failures. She is more than happy to help, but loath to receive help on her own behalf. Indeed my acceptance of help proves my weakness to both of us. I get a little depressed. As Ellen DeGeneres says, help “is the sunny-side of control.”

In the best case scenario, extra adults distract me with wine and interesting conversation. In the worst case scenario, responsibilities diffuse until supervision becomes paper-thin. Let’s say someone is in the living room with the kids while I’m cooking dinner. I think he is paying attention to them, but actually he’s on his phone. The kids are unsupervised but I don’t know that until I hear the sound of breaking glass.

I’m looking for another type of teamwork; one cut from a fabric of patience and sewn together with an unspoken understanding that these little kids have us maxed out. Everyone is doing their best.

My husband usually builds houses and earns a paycheck while I teach our children to share and take turns. Our life functions well enough but my brains are turning into peanut butter and jelly while M doesn’t get enough opportunity to know his kids. At least he rarely has time to notice what he’s missing.

Every so often I get a real-life glimpse of the family fantasy. This weekend, M slowed down and built a birthday piñata with Avery. Then she broke a string on our mini-blind and he calmly got a zip tie and fixed it; including her in the repair. “You know,” he said. “I think I’m getting better at being present with the kids.”

In the evening, M makes a quick meal while I run emotional interference for the kids. After dinner, I look at my husband through tired eyes. “I’ll clean up tomorrow,” I say. He doesn’t object.

Without speaking we both know what needs to happen next. I get everyone into pajamas and diapers while he pours milk into three cups with tippy lids. I lay down on the bed and he lays down next to me. Our children tackle us, and for a few minutes we lay there in a happy heap.

Parenting is often lonely. The help I need most is usually simple validation and friendship. A companion who isn’t trying to fix me or my family; someone who falls in line with my rhythms instead of jerking us into his. Someone who makes life more fun by virtue of his company.

Thanks,” I say to my husband. “It’s really nice to have you here.”

***

Twins: 20 months

Sleep this past six months has been garbage. The brothers have been sprouting a life-disrupting batch of teeth since October and have twelve out of sixteen canines and first-year molars. At some point during those months, Toren stopped sucking his thumb and now expects me to sooth him in the night; so at least I’m losing what precious assets I had.

There is something unfair about these teeth in particular. They rise like mean little nunataks through swollen gums, pissing babies off for months. Thankfully, a break is scheduled before the second and final set of molars come in.

Rather than wake up the whole family several times a night, I’ve been going the Mommartyr route and nursing the brothers back to sleep after every waking. I don’t experience it as sleep so much as the beginning and end of night.

I’ve made some half-hearted attempts at night-weaning but it hasn’t been enough to get me there. After a week of effort, I fold and take whatever sleep I can get. My boobs are getting longer by the month.

This too shall pass gets me through most of it. Eirik’s most excellent bed-head gets me through the rest.

When Avery was 20-months old she escaped her pack’n play (travel crib), which surprised me. Anticipating twin boys, I upped the ante and got a proper crib with sturdy wooden walls. Toren escaped this crib at 17-months, and bedtime became a complete fiasco.

If I am reading to Avery, or caring for Erik, I can’t keep Toren in the room much less in his bed. I finally decided to let him squirrel until the other two are asleep.

Then I hatch a new plan: Eirik, who has been sleeping peaceably in an infant carseat in the bathroom for months, gets the boot. I strap Toren into the carseat for books and Eirik is relegated to crying in the crib until I can get to him. Sorry buddy. It comes to this.

We have a few semi-functional evenings. Then, Eirik escapes the crib.

Whereas the other kids climb with an ease and grace inherent to their athletic forms, Eirik scales the rail crying and possessed with the determination of a potato with arms and legs. Still, he gets the job done.

Bedtime gets funnier from this point. Oh my god, oh my god, I write in my journal, I have no idea how to get my twins to sleep all of a sudden. Every night is a rodeo with 1-2 hours of crying. It is going to give me an ulcer.

We put a mattress on the floor and I sit at the edge to block the babies from escaping. I wrestle Toren to keep him down, while trying to maintain a calm and sleep-supporting environment for the other kids. Good luck.

Upon waking the three of them lie cuddled in a heap like a bunch of wriggling worms. They especially love when I am on the bottom of the pile. The brothers nurse and blow raspberries on my belly. When Avery joins, I’m in real trouble. At least once a day I find myself trapped, unable to move or do anything to help myself, and laughing from fear until no sound comes out (feel free to call this “joy”).

Some mornings, especially when he is teething, Toren bats at his brother for sport. He pushes Eirik into a crawling position, leads him to whatever he wants to climb, and uses his back as a step-stool. Eirik tolerated this for a while; then he learned to bite Toren in the back.

The brothers don’t have many words but they get a lot of mileage out of these: mama, milk, more, dada, brother (bubba), Avery, bike, boot, bath, hat, diaper, poop (bo-po!), together, food, airplane, off, hurt, boat, share, tickle-tickle, no, yes, stuck, help, uh-oh, and bye-bye!

They string together some recognizable phrases and sing along with Avery in rousing renditions of happy birthday and the ABC song. The tune they know, the words they hum. Toren got his hands on a roller-skate at grandma’s house and composed a little song about a shoe with wheels, na na na. He also invented a game where you stick one finger in the air and say, Da! Eirik is then quick to stick his finger in the air and say, Da! Soon everyone in the room is doing it.

Eirik’s favorite words are all-done! and grand-pa! He was running around sans diaper last night and to my surprise stopped to pee in an empty tupperware container. I bragged him up to my mom within his earshot and he proudly said, “I did that!”

When he walks, Eirik’s belly precedes him. He’s slower than the other kids but when he gets moving the belly momentum keeps him in orbit. He runs into a room just like Kramer from Seinfeld – his upper body turns the corner but his legs keep going straight.

Eirik inspires a lot of references to our favorite tuber. He sits still from time to time (an anomaly among our children) and keeps mittens on. If he falls down on his bottom he is likely to keep rolling and hit the back of his head.

So when Eirik makes up a game of curling up into a ball and lying on my lap with his head tucked, a game all the children line-up and wait turns for, it’s no wonder that it comes to be called, “the potato shake”.

People talk about the epic year of poor sleep that comes with a twin birth and all the wee-hours spent holding their crying infants. I dare say I slept pretty well that year because I did none of that. I simply rolled to one side or the other, nursed my babies with eyes half-closed, and returned to dreamland.

But bed-sharing comes with a bait-and-switch. Co-slept babies learn (and then demand) to be near mama in sleep. Eirik, for example, needs to be touching my body or hair; so I made him this creepy horse, Old blue. Thankfully, it didn’t take.

Eirik is far enough away from me in the bed that it should be impossible for him to touch me; but he’s sneaky. He assumes the baby starfish position; reaching out like go-go gadget until his pinky finger grazes my arm. It could be accidental; but it isn’t.

And here’s the real kicker: In teething, co-slept babies wake up every hour or two, expecting you to put boobies in their mouths.

Over and over again in parenting I recognize that I have gotten myself into a bad situation without understanding what I could have done, or can do, to get myself out of it. I do not, as a general rule, appreciate being bossed around by babies. But even worse, is when they wake up my husband and daughter and then I have four crying family members bossing me to do something. So, like a mother taken hostage, I do what the babies tell me to do.

Finally, after months of drama, all sixteen teeth are in! But the babies still wake me up countless times every night. Especially Eirik. My “easiest child” unravels whenever he is teething, over-tired, hungry, constipated, or otherwise. You name it. He screams with the fervor of a little guy intending to meet his needs and to hell with everything else. Something isn’t right!

I worry that our recent cold left him with an ear infection; so I take him to the doctor. His ears are fine, and I realize that my youngest child is a big faker.

This ends night milkies. At 9:30 PM I’m up walking with Eirik for an hour. He settles just in time for Toren to wake up. At least they have the decency to take turns.

I finally fall into bed at 11:30 PM and sleep almost four hours for the first time in a long time. I get to finish a dream, making this effort a win for me – though not for other adults in my household.

The real effort comes at 3 AM when both babies are up in the biggest twin throw-down I’ve ever seen. Sometimes, I think, I could almost get one baby to sleep. One might settle, but then the other adjusts to a fever-pitch, urging him to keep going: We’re breaking her down! Stay with me!

I am losing ground. No amount of walking (each baby sliding down one of my legs) does the trick. I resign myself to sitting on the couch with one baby screaming into each ear while I whisper, “Shhhhhhh. Sleep. Shh shhhh shhhh.”

Finally, we make it into bed. This step is inevitable as the goal is Sleep! For the love! As soon as we are horizontal, however, the screaming starts back up again.

It takes forever. I finally sooth both of them when I devise a way to keep Toren still and Eirik in motion: Toren is wrapped around my chest in a big bear hug while Erik lies suspended in mid-air – clutching my forelegs – and doing the potato shake.

***

This guy

“Does he look like a Talus? My sister and I stood outside of a wire cage at the Anchorage Humane Society wearing ski bibs and beacons. It was supposed to be a quick stop on our way home from the mountain; but there were puppies.

“Yes,” she said. “Absolutely.”

I had decided on this name years before my dog and I ever met. The mottled red-browns of his fur and sky blue eyes made me sure he was the one. An aunt who has opinions about these things met us at the pound and ran him through a battery of puppy tests. Did he nip at a hand in his kibble bowl? No, he didn’t. Did he startle at the jingle of her keys? Of course not.

Talus was my first chosen family member; the first being I connected with that made me feel unalone in the world. Looking back through old photographs, I’m certain it will take forever to get through our fifteen years together. There are fifty photos of his first bath. But then gaps appear between adoring reels when I was traveling or busy with a new job, and we were apart. Time flicks by more and more quickly.

Eventually, crows’ feet develop around my eyes, and the black fur around his eye fades to gray. My husband appears – and then our daughter and sons. I waited so long; but in retrospect it took no time at all to create this family.

Photo by S. Neilson

Avery booted Talus from center stage but he photobombed the fifty pictures I have of her first steps. She will remember him, I think. The brothers technically spent a year-and-half living under the same roof as Talus but weren’t often in shared spaces. With three little kids, my aged dog was often left to lie alone under the carport. Some days, our interactions were limited to the moments when I lovingly placed a bowl of kibble before him.

It’s not news that a once beloved pet can be forgotten when babies arrive; I just didn’t think it would happen to me.

On his last day of life, Talus is gentle with me about the ways that I failed him in the end. All I feel from him is deep love. You did what you had to do, he says. I try to send it back, but he refuses. Today, he said, is about my love for you.

Euthanasia is a difficult decision. His body is weak; but his spirit is strong. I sit with his head cradled in my lap waiting for the vet to give her injections. I ask my body one more time, just to be sure: Is this OK? Is it time?

The answer comes from Talus: I don’t mind, he says. I only want to be together.

Death takes a long while so my husband and I tell stories to pass the time. I talk about our time in the sub-Arctic where Talus and I divided the long season into “winter A” and “winter B” and cross-country skied every day. Talus learned to swim up there when I waded across a river to check on a smolt trap and he couldn’t bare for us to be apart. The only wrong thing he ever did was roll in a dead walrus.

M reminds me that Talus rarely went anywhere with him in our first years together unless I was along for the ride. In our family, everyone wants to be with mama. Gulla Gulla, my children call it. Together. Talus was first to feel this way about me; but I had forgotten.

Photo by R. Evanson
My hands rest on his body, waiting for his spirit to loosen and float away. Images of the two of us playing on the beach flit across the backs of my eyelids. We are both younger and slimmer. I wear rubber boots and a lavender jacket. I lift a stick high over my head as Talus rises onto his hind legs with his tongue hanging wildly out of his mouth. He leaps for it once, twice, and again.

I throw it far.

Go! I say. It’s time! He runs after the stick but brings it back with a smile on his face.

Together, he says.

Go after it! I say, and throw it again. Again, he brings it back.

Talus asks, in the language of pictures, if perhaps his spirit could join with mine so we might live out the rest of our days as one?

Of course, I say.

He sends one last image from a winter when we cared for his two best friends. Max and Zak. Those dogs have been gone for years. The three dogs lie on their respective beds, under a covered porch, looking very pleased with themselves.

Finally, life flows out of Talus and up my arms like one river flowing into another at their confluence. Our spirits mix and he vanishes. M carries his body into a bedroom and lays Talus under a string of prayer flags.

The kids come in and we say our goodbyes while M digs a hole in the yard. We wrap Talus in a sheet and lower him in as gently as we can. Avery and I add a collar, biscuits, and a love note to be buried with him. I sing Amazing Grace and read aloud a children’s poem about a very good dog. M lifts one shovelful of earth after another until the work is done. As he pats the final shovelful into place, he rocks back on his heels in reflection. “Just like that,” M says, “he was gone.”

I never understood how much courage my dog gave me by virtue of his company. Now, surrounded by all of my people, I feel lonely, untethered, and vulnerable. A deeper sort of love resides within me that wants to be given. It will be hard to learn to let people love me like my dog loved me.

That night, lying awake in my bed, thoughts cycle through my mind like leaves stuck in a revolving door. Was it the right thing to do? Was it the right time? It’s hard to come to any conclusion other than this: What’s done is done. I sift through and deliberately repeat the thoughts that serve me. I trust in the moment when the decision was made.

I’ve been talking with my daughter about what to do with difficult emotions. Grief, I tell her, is something we are meant to pass through and out of. Tears spring from a well and it’s best to cry like you’re looking for the bottom of it.

With my eyes closed, I feel Talus’ spirit. I feel the softness of his toes, his crimpy ear fur, the wag of his sail tail, and the steady rise and fall of his breathing. I feel his love from the inside. He is not so far away.

In the morning, Avery and I make paper snowflakes to hang on the windows. Sadness inspires making of ephemeral art in me; something to cheer myself up in the moment and mark the passing of time as I heal. Once I made paper birds that stayed on the windows for years, but I will take these down when the snow melts. It is well with my soul.

After a few days of our family holding each other in random moments, I get out for an afternoon ski across the meadow. To my delight, the strong spirit of my pup is there, bounding through the snow beside me. We head out into the day, together again.

***

When joy comes

Happy New Year! This is a reverse resolution: a celebration of the human spirit and my proudest accomplishments from 2021. Let joy fill the page!

Joy comes when we least expect it. Based on popular myth, a life with children includes joy – a lot of joy. And mine does. I see it in photographs where light radiates from my babies. But often, I missed it. I was there: I took that picture. But I forgot to catch those rays on my skin. I failed to pause until the last drops faded.

I want to recognize moments of my children humming happily along in real time and not just in retrospect. I want to relax into those moments; to drop my shoulders and smile despite the madness.

I always wanted to be a mom, still this motley crew is full of surprises. I never saw myself with two sons or a daughter so unlike me. I never anticipated the way her wild heart and mind would undo me.

All of my kids are beautiful, happy, whole, unpredictable. Something about the surprise of their existence brings me a kind of joy every day.

Life is what it is, and it is good.

Joy comes when we cultivate it. A year ago I had a panic attack and wanted to yell at everyone at 4 PM every day. I cooked dinner while the kids freaked out and made each other cry.

After a year of hard work, my children rarely trigger emotional outbursts from me anymore. I phased out punishment and Avery’s behavior is singing. My relationship with the brothers is better for it too; they have only ever known their mama in love.

To help my calm, I learned to cook beyond browning ground beef in a skillet. I play music (may dance parties flow freely through this kitchen!) and I do the deep breathing that heals the separated muscles of my core while I cook.

What was once mayhem now passes for well-organized play. Toren and Avery sprint back-and-forth manically through the longest stretch of the house. Eiriky stands in the middle of the game laughing with all the light in his eyes until they knock him down. Sometimes I realize that I am breathing deeply and that tells me I must be stressed. I cook and breathe and I am okay.

Usually. When I make mistakes, Avery catches me like an emergency parachute. The other day I lacked a dinner plan but was throwing something into a bowl. Avery was stirring and making a mess. It was 4 PM and I got stressed. She turned to me and said, “Mama? Are you blaming me? I feel calm.”

IloveyouIloveyouIloveyouIloveyou.

Joy comes when things are easy. Avery is sleeping like a rockstar. That is, she sleeps like a rock and I would pay a lot of money to attend this show. Sometimes she gets lonely and sleeps in a cot in our room but she stays asleep despite what the brothers dish out. Yay.

Last night Armageddon struck in my bedroom. All of the kids were crying and my husband and I had a helluva time getting everyone to sleep. But a year ago this happened every night. I had hesitated to say this out loud; but after a bit of schadenfreude for my former self, I’ll shout it from the rooftops: Bedtime is going well!

Joy lives in the big picture. Avery is four and growing into a beautiful kid; inside and out. I realized the other day she is not going to be small much longer. It made me want to gobble up this time with her.

She loves to play doctor. Her stuffed animals are forever injured or recently born. The coffee table, turned up on its side to prevent the brothers from climbing, is our x-ray machine. She makes beds out of cardboard boxes. The empty plastic spinach container is an incubator for the premature. Mismatched socks provide an endless supply of casts and bandages.

Avery is starting to read and loves chapter books. We read the Magic Tree House series out loud together and are now working on the stories of Zooey and Sassafras.

Avery loves words. Not yet five, she is the envy of any second language learner. New vocabulary this week includes confused, bored, captivated, scurry, and paradise. As in, “Grandma and grandpa’s house is my paradise.” Just for kicks, I look up these words in Spanish. Confundifo. Aburrido. Cautivado. Escabullen. El paraíso.

Raising kids offers the only direct correlation I’ve ever found between hard work and payoff. I’ve said before that the reward of parenting is an endless opportunity for personal growth; but it is also relationship you get to have with your kids. There is no substitute. They take everything you have but give you everything they are.

Joy comes when we ask for it; so I address the universe most mornings. Please, bring joy. A twin mom commented recently that parenting is just one big process of letting go. I couldn’t agree more. Let go of what other people think. Let go of control. Let go of resistance. There is loss, and loss is always painful but we are better people for it (mostly because there is no going back). I don’t imagine any caterpillar ever enjoyed becoming a butterfly.

I am present for my children. I make eye contact. I listen when Avery speaks and I know enough about her inner life to ask meaningful questions. I prioritize calm, fun, adventure, and delicious food. The rest I can let go. This messy house reflects all the things I am doing right.

I sneak away for an hour over the New Year to catch up with a friend, T. (I called from my idling car where the brothers were falling asleep and later moved into a locked bathroom. Avery stood outside the door chanting, gula gula gula gula, which means together, together, together in baby language.)

T: “I feel like I was born to live a quiet, ascetic life meditating on mountain tops,” she says, “and then someone was like, Here are the keys to the minivan! This morning, I opened the door and french fries fell out.”

Me: “Maybe the keys to the minivan are the keys to enlightenment?”

T: “I’d wear that on a T-shirt.”

Joy comes from finding humor in times of sadness. Avery broke my favorite mug today. The one with blackbirds carved from salt-fired clay that I found in a gallery in Asheville, North Carolina. I rented a car there and drove the Blueride Parkway; even though I don’t do that sort of thing. It was a lifetime ago. I knew my children would break it.

I kept it high on the counter, and used it anyway, because I needed one sane, beautiful focal-point in my day. When it broke I went outside to find my husband digging a sand-point well through three-feet of snow because, after eight years of near-misses and two months of freezing temperatures, the cistern finally ran out of water. I told him. He hugged me and let me cry a little even though we have had trouble connecting lately and he hates it when I cry. It was almost worth losing the mug.

I rarely cry anymore. Emotional processing lags too far behind my pluck for tears. I am needed and busy and interested. I live in the space of action without thought, like a mother swallow who hunts and returns to the nest with one bug after the next. She sees only that her babies are fed, clean, and well. My children look up to me, love me, and trust me to care for them. Who could ask for more? I don’t think, and I am happy.

When joy comes, it can be hard to recognize it for what it is. We wait for our kid to outgrows tantrums, sleep through the night, or arrive at the scissors-and-glue phase of life. But joy comes anyway; a flash of excellence in the middle of an every-day sort of day.

Joy remembers our hopes and dreams; even as we try to forget. It reminds us of the fragility of our tender hearts; of what we thought parenting would be before the baby arrived. So little of life is like this.

The pause makes us vulnerable. We have wrapped our hearts in gauze to protect them from all of the other moments. Feeling joy is a recognition that we still care. Rip those layers away, and right this instant! Jettison self preservation to let a few seconds tingle up your spine.

Much re-wrapping will have to be done afterwards but of course it’s worth it. A moment of joy can be everything. Every parent knows that.

****

Twins: 17 months

In the first year and a half, the hardest part of raising these twins was definitely their big sister. But that is changing! After a lot of love and hard work, Avery is figuring it out. The twins, for their part, are getting harder!

The snow has been incredible these past couple of months. I find opportunities to cross-country ski on my own or with Avery pulled behind me on a sled but I can’t figure out how to get my whole crew out at the same time. Instead, we spend most of our time together inside getting molars.

When I wrote twins: 14 months, I had just night-weaned these guys and gotten them out of my bed; fully aware of the next 24 teeth would be really hard. Alas! They are back in the bed and on the night-boob and will stay that way until this is over.

Erik ‘s first molar was wrapped in an eruption cyst, which looked like a purple eggplant, for two weeks. I sent pictures to a dentist and she said it was normal but “You poor thing!” I don’t know if she met him or me. “Actually,” I said. “he’s a twin.” Her end of the line went silent.

Most of the fears that ran through me when I saw those two little gummy bears wiggling on the ultrasound screen never came to fruition. Twins getting canines and molars, however, is far worse than expected. For all those twin parents out there, better to skip them. Or perhaps convince each baby to get half the full set of chompers and move on.

Life with twin toddlers is busy. Some days I feel like I feed them, clean-up, and change diapers on a 1.5-hour loop.

The climbing is intense. Everything is a step stool; and if they can’t find something to climb up on, stepping on a brother will do. The top of the table is their main objective. Helpful Toren likes to clears the the dishes; whether I want him to or not. He has broken two plates and spilled a few cups of coffee. I don’t know how we are ever going to visit anyone ever again.

I got extra furniture out of here months ago but, as I get wise, Toren moves on to larger free-standing objects. He pushes his crib around with frightening efficacy, and climbs in and out of it at will. If Toren is loose and his brother is dining in a highchair, Eirik will find himself in the bathroom by the end of the meal.

Around here we tip chairs on their sides after each meal and shove them under the table. This has kept the brothers from climbing; especially because the cushions fall off, leaving oak frames without platforms. But this morning, Toren righted a chair, put the cushion back on top, pushed it over to the radio, and turned on the music.

Toren loves new physical tricks. After a few months of climbing the couch and sliding off if the arm, Toren has taken to climbing up and sliding fully off of the back. It is very unnerving!

Avery is their co-conspirator. Try as I might keep doors and cabinets locked, she is constantly leaving them unlocked. Sister is a one-way ticket to splashing in the potty and easy access to all of our office supplies.

Toren is wired very much like Avery and I’m grateful this isn’t my first rodeo raising my husband’s genes. Watching him brings me back to when Avery was one, and her favorite game was to climb a stool and leap off of the top. Toren is bigger and stronger but he isn’t quite up to her level of risk-taking. Sometimes he climbs too high, gets scared, and calls for me. Avery never did that; she jumped off of everything.

Eirik is a climber but not much of a jumper. At least I have one child who I understand! Unfortunately for him, he is a slow little sloth and his siblings have trained me to be quick and vigilant. He only gets to climb if I bait him. This morning I left a chair up and pretended not to notice. Such joy!

If Erik was my first child, I would have held him a lot. As is, his siblings demand quite a bit more of my lap. Often, I will be kissing tears and making the effort of eye contact with Eirik as he sit playing with a truck across the room. Sometimes he brings me a ball, throw it mama?

I rarely pick Eirik up unless he is hurt. When I do, he settles contentedly in like he intends to stay a long while. He doesn’t ask for much. I hold him as long as I can.

When Baba (Grandpa) comes around he holds Eirik. It’s sweet because this baby looks so much like my dad. This Thanksgiving my parents visited and the two of them played you-make-a-sound I-repeat-the-sound, which they made up when Eirik was just a little guy. I can’t say who enjoys it more.

Certain aspects of Toren’s development are six months ahead of Eirik’s. Except the hair. For months we have kept extra rooms locked, especially bathrooms. Toren is starting to jam those keys into the hole in the knob. It won’t be long before he can open them.

Sometimes it feels like I have Irish twins rather than the real thing. I find myself calling Eirik “the baby” and “little brother.” I mean, he is. But not like that.

Eirik can now turn and open our lever-style interior door knobs. it still surprises me when, from the inside, I hear the knob turn and it’s his little face that pops in rather than Toren’s.

Toren talks nonstop, but what is he saying? He sounds very much like a hostage with tape over his mouth. Eirik communicates with the clicks and squeals of an echolocating dolphin; except when he sits down to read a good book. Then it’s blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

I use sign language with the hope that these brothers will communicate well and early. They tell me everything they need to but rarely use signs. For example, babies are taught to ask for milk by opening and squeezing a fist. These guys throw themselves on the ground and thrash. Still, they are clear.

With three little kids, life is not so much about what is fair as it is about whatever works. I don’t pretend to care for my children equally. I rotate through needs, trying to anticipate what each child is looking for and meet them there. Flexibility is always appreciated. I love them all a lot; but I love them differently.

When both twins are awake in the night, I find myself consoling Toren because he is so loud. It isn’t fair, but his going down is the only hope any of us has for getting back to sleep. If Toren is left to cry, then nothing good happens.

A few months ago I separated the twins at night for the sake of better sleep. It was my hope that they would not wake each other up so much in the night; that I could assist one of them at a time. To my surprise, Eirik took to sleeping alone more quickly than his brother, and as thanks for his flexibility, he has been relinquished to sleeping in a carseat in the bathroom these past three months. It sounds extreme but this is what qualifies as personal space in our household. I’m a little jealous.

The bathroom is actually a favorite hang out. When the babies were infants the bathroom served as my early morning yoga retreat. We would hang out in there, the babies bouncing in their chairs and me rolling around on my mat, all of each of us trying to get a little stronger, until dad and Avery woke up.

That same space has become a hotbed of danger and destruction. The brothers grab onto the handles of the drawers and hang on them until they open, knocking them on their backs with a WHAM! All for a chance at you-can’t-have-that kinds of treasure. Toren can see inside of the drawers; Eiriky can’t see but he can reach.

Once we are in the bathroom, getting everyone back out can be a challenge. Just when you’ve corralled one the other grabs onto the diaper sprayer. As my husband says, “The problem is, there are two of them.”

***

All time all the time

Time has gone funny. In a way, I have no time; meaning I rarely do what I want to do, mean to do, or need to do. In another way, time is all there is.

I function on a system of clicks, timers, and alarms. Our schedule is loose, but the order of operations is tight. 5 AM, the twins start us off with a dawn chorus. Nurse. Diaper change. By 6 AM we are all awake. Avery calls from her room, Coo-ee! Mama! Wake me up! I go in for a cuddle. Breakfast, then Avery and I draw at the table with Toren trapped in his highchair. Otherwise he climbs and there is no peace.

At 8 AM, I verbally check off Avery’s list (Dressed? Check. Socks? Check. Teeth brushed? Check. Homework? Check. Bag packed? Check. Warmies ready? Check.) and plug her in. Nurse and diaper change again. At 8:35 the shoes-on alarm goes off. Grab Avery’s snack and waterbottle. Change whoever pooped. Remember what I forgot. Alarm goes off again. Shoes on. We are out the door.

I think a lot about the culmination of a life; which means I am always rushing. The people who walk regularly at 9 AM think I am a maniac driver; and I am.

Time comes in three basic types: bronze, silver, and gold. In bronze minutes my lap is on non-stop rotation. I sling pancakes and kiss away tears. Prioritize, execute, repeat. The dog will be fed later. Silver minutes are those when the kids are copacetic. No one is injuring one another. As long as I don’t remind them of my presence I can wash dishes and boil noodles. Gold minutes are the rare, jeweled beasts that come around when everyone is asleep or at school. Everything gets quiet. I can can pour a ceramic mug of hot tea and leave it unprotected and without a lid. It doesn’t spill or break, and no one gets burned. These minutes are pure wonder.

People ask how I find time to write but I don’t find it; I create it. I cultivate creativity and adventure for our family through some serious temporal upscaling. I invite playmates over so Avery uses her imagination instead of kicking the couch. When kids start to spin out, you will hear my battle-cry: Get in the car! Hop on your bike! Anywhere but here! I do my best to turn bronze minutes silver and silver minutes gold. I am always working this alchemy.

Gold time is never enough to do all the things. One must choose. Life with kids is crazy making and rest is necessary. As one mom put it: “Sometimes when I get a minute, I just want to sit down.” But if you want to accomplish anything then this is when the real ass-kicking needs to begin.

Make time for yourself in the same way you would make time for your new boyfriend. Drive across town on your lunch hour to make-out in a stairwell for fifteen minutes. Do it because you want to.

I waste precious little gold time; even in that moment before writing when emotions start to bubble and the dishes look pretty enticing. I eat all of the cookies, but at least they are finite. Remembering how precious these minutes are is usually enough to get me started. For example, today is Wednesday. My husband arrives home tomorrow afternoon, and school is canceled on Friday. So the next 90 minutes is the only time I will get until next week. Sit. Down.

Is writing work or play? It is both. It is desire over duty and the ego enlisted to do the work of the heart. A little writing time ensures that I am happy more often than I am grumpy; also that my kids will know me, have family stories, and learn that even as adults they may take time for themselves.

Looking around the house, most people would have no choice but to clean. But do this math: If I spend two gold hours cleaning, and the kids trash the house within five minutes of reentering, what was gained? The house is no cleaner, I am not rested, and I am mad about the shape we are in.

I joke with myself about “Heidi’s time-saving tips”. Like cleaning always happens in the presence of children, and I skip chores that don’t make sense. For example, I don’t fold laundry. Who cares if we look like a big wrinkle? I wore jeans to a school drop-off once last year and another mom commented. “Props, dude,” she said. “I haven’t worn jeans since I left Dallas.”

Gold minutes are my time. I claim very little for myself these days; not my body, not my food, not my bathroom, not my sleep. Weekday hours from ten until noon are as close to sacred as I get.

Time is nothing; it is all around us. But mess with my time and there will be hell to pay. I teach Avery to be very careful around the word my. “That little word starts a lot of fights,” I tell her. Whenever possible we skip my in favor of the simple article the. There’s no need to get excited about the cup, the game, the stuffy. But my cup; my game; my stuffy. That is another matter.

My poor husband, M, works out of town; so he is either very much gone or very much here. He thinks gold minutes are an opportunity for couple time, or to talk about bills, or to address the pile of broken toys behind the fruit bowl.

My can be a selfish and entitled word or it can reflect a healthy sense of self-worth. M doesn’t understand my obsession with time but he feels this way about food. According to him, food must be hot, delicious, and well-plated. It may not be touched and made weird by children. He definitely doesn’t eat their scraps.

Everyone is entitled to a my now and again. Forget the guilt, and claim whatever gold minutes you can for yourself. Clear two-square-feet of peace and do whatever makes your heart sing.

I function well within the structures I have created. But my lack of flexibility (it’s real) makes including other adults in our day difficult. Even my husband struggles to figure out where he fits.

Before I had kids, I wanted to be a helpful auntie. In the one morning that I was with my sister’s family, I served my nephew’s oatmeal. I took the bowl from my sister, placed it on a wobbly high-chair table, and watched in horror as the whole tray crashed to the floor. I wiped it up while my sister made more oatmeal.

How can a passing adult help a busy parent? It’s never easy to jump in and do the things mom usually does. My lists of “daily chores” and “weekend chores” are generally covered but there is room for improvement in other areas. Can someone convince Avery to clean-up after herself? Help the brothers fall back asleep at 4:30 AM? Teach the dog to feed himself?

Unlikely. When M comes home, I shower. I sweep under the beds. I play with my children. The brothers are better supervised and suffer fewer bonks. No child waits or cries for very long. And I get less gold time than I would have had on my own.

It comes down to this: I struggle to use gold minutes in the presence of other adults. I worry about what people think and I get sucked in to this thing that my mother did, and her mother before her, where until the work is finished there is no time to live.

What I really need from the supporting cast is 90-minutes whenever possible. Not a clean kitchen. Not special time with the brothers. Not an extra pair of hands when they’re getting out of the bath. “I don’t need help,” I tell my husband. “I need escape.”

Caring for three kids is hard. I struggle to imagine how another adult would do this so I rarely leave them; even with dad. But, every now and again, the feeling that I have nothing left to give manifests in my putting on my shoes.

This weekend my breaking point was a spaghetti squash that I served with marinara for lunch. I mean, it was a little bland but it wasn’t disgusting. No one would eat it. I laughed until I cried and then I said to my husband, “I’m walking away from this dumpster fire.”

“It’s not a dumpster fire,” he said.

“Yes, it is,” I said. “I just make it look really good.”

I throw elbows to protect gold minutes because no one is going to do it for me. But I don’t like stomping out of the house to get an hour. When that happens I waste half of my allotted me-time calming down. It doesn’t have to be this way.

When Avery was a toddler, I made a schedule that designated equal “autonomous human units” of free time to each of us. I had an unreasonable hour-and-a-half each morning before my family woke up, and M had an unreasonable hour-and-a-half every night after we went to bed. Additionally, we each got one evening a week and a three-hour block of time on the weekend. I knew when my gold minutes were coming, and it was pretty great.

Three kids and my husband’s commute now prohibit my scheduling ideals; but it’s okay. The more I work through this the more I realize time is a proxy. My real need, both simpler and more complicated, is to exist as my complete self.

I try to explain to M but he doesn’t get it. “I think you’re missing the old you,” he tells me. “But the new you is a beautiful thing.”

What I am trying to impart, is that the new me is dangerously close to becoming no-thing. This kind of loss plays a huge role in post-partum depression. We expect our new bundle to fill our lives with joy and instead a mom is faced with the private grief of losing everything she used to be.

The mothers of my ancestors did not talk about this loss of self. Women of the past couldn’t get fifteen or twenty adult years before having a family like women today. They had less to lose; but they smoldered with questions over who they might have been.

As a child, these women cared for me and taught me to nurture. But unconscious flavors simmered with their warmth; a scorn you heard only when they spoke to their husbands. I watched and learned to include that quiet resentment in my own recipe for how a mother is made.

I am a wife and mother. I would also like to continue on with my inner life of creativity and spirituality and an outer life of words and leadership. I hope to find a way.

My husband spends quiet evenings scrolling on the couch, finishes meals, leaves the house without much fanfare, even disappears for weeks at a time without ruffling the family feathers. He does as he pleases during bronze minutes when I am absolutely scrambling. It isn’t fair; but it is this way. My walking around like a bristlecone pine isn’t going to change anything.

My friend, S, jokes about this phenomenon. She says that before she had kids it was all planned out. “Parenting would be 50-50,” she said, “until I realized, Oh. I am the mother.”

So I get up every morning whenever the children wake and my husband sleeps another two hours. Other inequities swing my way. I recently handed him a list of “never gets done” chores, and he vacuumed my car and repaired the toaster. Last night, around bedtime, I noticed that the toilet was glowing from waaay down under the water. Eirik had flushed an LED nightlight. I will not be the one to recover it.

My husband works very hard for our family. Certainly he feels the tug of freedom as a strain against the weight of our responsibilities. But for all of my husband’s daily sacrifices, he is not shamed when he takes time for himself. Becoming a father did not require that he give up his drive, ingenuity, ambition, or bodily needs. His sense of self is alive and well. He does not worry about what other people think when he uses his own damn gold minutes.

In a recent podcast, I heard Esther Perel say, “Instead of anger, communicate hurt. Instead of criticism, communicate longing.” So yes, familial tasks take all of my time and I feel angry about what I lose in that transaction. I criticize my husband’s bottomless fountain of gold minutes because I have so few. I am hurt by the way family life snuffs out women’s voices and forces a withdraw of our work from the world. My heart goes out to all the moms who are part of this Great Resignation, especially to those who would rather earn a paycheck than caretake. We lament the loss of your faces in the workplace.

I want to be home raising my brood, and I long to be my whole self instead of a sweep-it-up mom robot. My husband wants me to be happy, but it is not important to him that I do a thing. He does not ask how much writing I’ve done lately.

May we value ourselves enough to take the time we have to do what we want. May our creative fires burn bright and grow. May children see their parents thriving.

***

The Big Love

Avery drank from a nasty puddle and spent three days and four nights in the fetal position. Her poop rode two airplanes to Seattle for testing and we waited a week for a diagnosis and medication while giardia parasites partied in her belly.

That week, she slept in my bed so I could help her get to the toilet. Including the brothers’ wakings, I was up ten times a night for multiple nights in a row. It’s no wonder that on third night I lay there, holding my dehydrated daughter, and teaching her to pray.

Avery knows I am a Buddhist woman. She also knows about God and Jesus. It’s not important to me that Avery subscribe to any particular religion but I will teach her to access the spiritual part of her nature. We talk about this combined information as the Big Love.

“The Big Love is always there for you,” I say. “If you feel lonely or scared you can talk to it. Did you know that?” She’s falling asleep; but no matter. It’s I who need the Big Love tonight.

“Please, protect my child,” I say. The words feel good so I repeat them over and over. “Please, protect my child and deliver her safely unto the morning.” My plea carries the intonation of a childhood prayer or a Bob Dylan song. Eventually worry lifts, and I sleep.

In the morning, it does not surprise me at all when Avery wakes up and says, “Mama? Can we get M&M’s sometime?” She eats. She runs. She spins. She tapes her brother’s head. She is back.

Buddhists don’t necessarily pray but sometimes I do. I’ve been vulnerable to anxiety and overwhelm lately. I function very well in a normal-level day, but when extra things happen I can’t always keep my feet on the ground. Prayer helps.

I am surprised to have become a worried mother. In the past I never found any particular usefulness in worrying; but danger presents itself to children in an unnerving number of ways. It is my job to prevent head injuries, stranger danger, poisoning, and any number of accidents. I must also vigilantly protect warmth of hands, fullness of belly, and cleanliness of fingernails. My responsibility to safety as a constant preoccupation is my least favorite part of parenting.

Sometimes, when the children are snug in their beds, I lie down and I wonder if it is only by the skin of my teeth that they are safe and warm. There are mornings when a child sleeps late and I fear they are dead. Mostly, this is normal parenting stuff. I know they are fine. I don’t want to check on them and ruin their sleep.

But worry doesn’t totally melt until I hear the baby cry, Come get me!, or Avery’s little voice call, “Coo-ee! Mama! Wake me up!” The scary thoughts melt and are forgotten. It was all just a dream.

*

Avery recovered before her medication arrived; but in that window of illness, toilet-obsessed Toren managed to reach in and grab hold of a piece of her poop. Avery yelled for me. I washed his hands and changed his clothes; but I worried about his exposure. Just out of the fire with one kid, I had another reaching for the flames.

Nothing manifested. For every threat, Is this real?, is a relevant question. It’s hard to know. Circumstances where a kid ends up just fine differ only slightly from times when a kid is damaged forever.

My daughter is the most beautiful thing I have ever known. I must protect her life, limbs, and precious face even though she is a maniac. She can’t even be trusted with markers and here she is walking around all over the place. She can’t be held responsible for what happens. This is why kids have parents.

What I have failed to mention, is that Avery drank from that puddle because I prioritized a grown-up conversation over managing my kid. We, including an adult friend and the brothers in their stroller, went to make mud pies at that giant puddle because I knew it would hold Avery’s attention awhile. The scene deteriorated into swimming, and I kept right on semi-ignoring her; even though attention-seeking behaviors happen when mama is distracted.

When she looked over at me with her chin dripping, I was not surprised. Theoretically, a mom should be allowed a pleasant diversion now and then. In reality, these are the moments when disaster strikes.

*

Before Buddhism I was a Christian and then atheist. During the atheist portion of my life, I studied science and suffered a wicked depression. Though I didn’t think about it this way at the time, my spirit atrophied because it drew from a well parched by my limited imagination. I thought only about the tangible, measurable world; and had nowhere to go with questions that refused to be answered. When the life I had been leading outgrew its form, faith and intuition were the tools I needed to carry on.

Unhappiness is an invitation to look for something better. It is a journey into yourself; so that you may learn to know and love your inner landscape. At first, the discomfort of stillness is too much to bear; you fidget and resist. Every distracting thought, every task, every idea for an errand seems very important; like it must be done now. But finding no alternate route, you finally sit.

Inside, you look around wildly, hoping to bump into something comforting or something to lash out at. The pain is extreme; but sitting with what is already there will cause no further damage. Notice everything. Your being does not have to feel this way.

The mind spins the same old thoughts. You watch for a long time and eventually become bored with their thin defenses. Curiosity shifts toward the loneliness.

The pain is less foreboding than it used to be. Ignoring it didn’t make it go away; so say hello. Nice to meet you. I’ve been noticing you. There will be tears of recognition.

Even small relief feels monumental because, after all of these desperate months or years, it is wonderful to find anything that helps at all. Excited by the possibility of resolution, you open to the experience. You sit taller; breathe more deeply. You start to understand what it means to let go. Space opens, and the Big Love moves in.

Buddhism, in it’s godlessness, requires no leap of faith up-front. Only after years of emotional excavation, did this place open inside of me that feels very much like God. This is the space I send prayers into, like messages set adrift in bottles.

*

Parents need radical forgiveness. Things happen and sometimes the children are not okay and will never be okay again until we change our definition of what okay looks like. I reckon with this knowledge and try to make sense of why life includes so much pain. For me and for my children. For you and your children.

I am not a perfect parent. Yet, for today, everyone I love is held safely within my arms. Even in my godlessness, I feel this as grace. Days when the babies are not okay are also filled with grace. We are good enough when our children escaped unscathed and good enough in the face of tragedy. Every one of us is irreplaceable in the lives of our children.

I am grateful for my spiritual life, that hardship implicates an opportunity for a richer human experience. I am grateful for the concept of karma, that circumstances beyond our control are pre-determined and timely for the development of our souls. I am grateful for difficult experiences, that they drive me toward greater compassion, open-heartedness, and desire for connection. I am grateful for my faith, the knowing that this hard work of feeling and breathing is worth doing.

In moments when your child is hurting, or worse, the Big Love is there for you. Be strong. Grieve this loss, refocus on what remains, and keep going. At the very toughest crossroads, may you find the courage to feel everything.

And when the pain inside is as deep and wide as any that could be held within a body; then let your skin crack open and let the waters pour forth.

***

Lord Protect My Child

By Bob Dylan

For his age, he’s wise

He’s got his mother’s eyes

There’s gladness in his heart

He’s young and he’s wild

And my only prayer

Is if I can’t be there

Lord, protect my child

As his youth now unfolds

He is centuries old

To see him at play

Makes me smile

No matter what happens to me

No matter what my destiny

Lord, protect my child

While the earth is asleep

You can look at it and weep

Few things you find

Are worthwhile

And though I don’t ask for much

No material things to touch

Lord, protect my child

He’s young and on fire

Full of hope and desire

In a world that’s been raped

Raped and defiled

If I fall along the way

And can’t see another day

Lord, protect my child

There’ll be a time, I here tell

When all will be well

When God and man

Will be reconciled

But until men lose their chains

And righteousness reigns

Lord, protect my child

***