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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

Twins: 14 months

Babies from age 0 to 1 are sort of my jam. Since turning one, however, the brothers have entered a phase best described as ohmygodohmygodohmygod.

Toren operates a danger trap line. I run interference all morning while he confirms the bathroom doors as locked, sliding glass door blocked, kitchen cabinets latched, drawers taped, chairs down, and propane knob covers firmly closed. Only then does he resign himself to playing with toys.

At 25-pounds, Toren is developing power and determination. He fills out size 2T baby clothes. He has not yet been able to pick up his 15-pounds heavier sister, but he tries.

Toren’s diaper changes have become exceedingly difficult. I get through it by imagining myself surrounded by gamblers who have placed bets on how long it will take me. I race the clock as he throws his wicked back arches. I imagine that circle of people beating their palms against the floor and counting seconds. One! Two! Three!… Then an announcer calls out, That’s a record folks! She has diapered that baby in record time!

Eirik Skywalker, with all of his baby charms, is exploring. He needs a haircut but I’m not ready to make a man out of him. After a month of clinging to furniture and walls he has graduated to sequences of short, confident steps, moving with an arm out for balance like a dancer waiting to reunite with his partner. He still enjoys crawling; especially between platforms suspended several feet in the air.

Eirik is “the easy one,” though last night he woke up at 8 pm and stayed awake until 1 in the morning. Not crying, mind you, he was very cheerful about it. I was less cheerful.

I tried not to recreate the night-time situation I had with Avery but this twin has wormed his way into my bed on a semi-permanent basis. He prefers to keep mama in arm’s reach while he sleeps. I did one thing right: Instead of boobs, he is attached to the end of my ponytail. If all else fails I will cut it off and give it to him.

I got rid of most scaleable objects but I can’t solve our couch. The brothers climb up and slide over the arm to the floor over and over again. With time and practice they are falling off and bonking their heads less often (#secondbaby). When Eirik can’t make it, Toren boosts his little bottom.

I leave chairs and stools lying all over the floor like pick-up-sticks because when they’re upright Toren pushes and climbs them to the top of the stove where water is boiling. Yesterday Toren righted one of the kitchen chairs so we installed a baby gate to block him out of the kitchen. Today he solved that latch (just squeeze and lift) and resumed walking in and out of that space according to his nutty free will.

When your babies patrol for security weaknesses, every day is an adventure. I felt this way when Avery was one, and I wrote testing the wall. In that post, I compare her with the velociraptor in Jurassic Park who systematically throws herself against the perimeter fence. Except that she was 22-months old at that time; Toren is eight months younger. We are not surprised.

Both babies love music. When you’ve got bammy little hands, everything looks like a drum. Toren has picked up the tune to “wheels on the bus” and tosses his head from side to side with joy as he sings along. He spins and spins in the space between the kitchen and dining table that we use as a dance floor; just like his big sister.

Toren is quite the chatterbox. On days when we expect my husband to return, he dad-dad-dads all day. Yesterday M walked in and laid down on the wood floor to greet them. Toren tipped his special push-cart carefully on to its side as if showing off a new trick, arm-flapped over, and lay his head down on dad’s chest. He repeated this sequence over and over again.

Eirik is quieter except for his pleasant little shrieks of joy. When you tip him over he distinctly says, “upside down!” He also does some great broom brooom sounds when anything in the vicinity has wheels.

Eirik enjoys call-and-response games where you match the pitch of your voice to his and return a sound. This comes in handy because he is the child most likely to be missing in moments when I count, one… two… where is the third? I call, Coo-ee! Eiriky! and he returns our familial locating signal. I find him curled up with a good book or in the toilet. It’s either.

Both babies throw tantrums. When Eirik is mad his belly tightens and he kicks his little frog legs against my body like a swimmer doing the breast stroke.

Yesterday I brought Toren inside before he was ready and he threw himself down in the entry, arching his back and screaming. It was incredibly cute. I sat and waited until he was done, and then asked, “Do you want a hug?” Yes. He did.

Whenever Toren is sad or mad, ginormous tears spring into his eyes and roll down his soft little cheeks. Eirik often cries to me for comfort, validation, or support; but Toren goes inside to the space that hurts.

For all that he is sensitive, Toren has a lot of success in knocking over his 3-pounds smaller brother and taking his food and toys. I am beginning to see relationship dynamics among my kids; where I will have to teach my kids to be good to each other.

Mostly though, there is love and co-conspiracy. Eirik is waiting; ready for action. He crawls off with his head waving to-and-fro like a frolicking bear cub and climbs inside of the toy box. Toren runs alongside, flapping his arms, ready for takeoff.

***

Lament

So far my twins have been easy. Not cake walk easy but at least walking with two cakes easy. I will definitely pay for putting that in print.

First the oven, then the world!

I thought my first baby was hard as an infant, but I had never had a toddler. Toddlers should be illegal. Yesterday Toren dropped his poopy diaper under the dining room table and ran away laughing. His canines are irrupting and all shall suffer. Eirik is a buckle Houdini. He crawls like an army tank and climbs even unclimbable things.

My mom hustle has become a 15-hour day that includes cooking dinner with a crying baby standing up against each of my legs. What’s the pay? No pay.

I don’t mean to imply that things aren’t going well. This morning I picked blueberries with Toren on my back, Eirik asleep in the car, and my daughter by my side. On the bumpy car ride home the brothers played with their lips and voices, and Avery asked, “What is fart, mama?”

“Fart is an adult word for toot,” I said.

“Do trees fart, mama?”

“No. Trees don’t fart because they don’t have bottoms.”

“Maybe we could get a marker and draw on all these trees,” she suggested. “Eyes, ears, mouths, and bottoms, bottoms everywhere.”

Who could ask for more? Awesome is mine for thirty minutes a day. Maybe twice a day. In the afternoon we also read a library book called “Unicorn Diary.”Avery called it, “Unicorn Diarrhea,” and I teared up with laughter. The rest of the day, however, was about kindly extracting pulling fingers from hair, scrubbing old food off of walls, and wearing sick babies who wouldn’t nap. If I am a happy person it’s because I am stubbornly optimistic, and not because of any unicorns prancing through my house with rainbows shooting out of their butts.

Nobody knows.

Before I had kids people told me that parenting is the best. Amazing. Not to be missed. Reflecting on this cultural norm fills me with questions. Have you people never had fun? Are my kids crazier than other kids? Did my mother go through this? (I really don’t think she did.)

My husband gets it. “Your job is hard because it’s emotional,” he says. Ahem. My job is emotional, physical, and involves withstanding chaos and fatigue that at times qualify as torture. I’m honing a strategic and tactical skill set that might qualify me for a future career in the special forces. Until then, need a lasagna made in a burning building? I’m your gal.

I had a goodish day but let’s be clear about the score. My only objective is to teach three little kids how to be great humans. What I get out of this is not happiness, nor joy, but an endless opportunity for personal growth.

No one touting the “joy of parenthood” should be trusted unless they are currently in it. Even then, check references. People must stand firmly by irrevocable devisions, and under stress we cease to create memories. Parents can’t remember what happened yesterday much less a decade ago. I know because I wanted to capture a time lapse of an actual evening for this post and I could barely do it. Here is what happened:

Bath night. Toren is crying to be let out of the tub before I even turn the water on. Avery gets into the bath voluntarily; a real miracle. Eirik pooped in his diaper so I wipe him. The “waterfall” (shower) fills the tub. Toren is crying. I get in and wash my hair quickly while the kids splash among the tub toys at my feet. Then I hop out and towel off, needing to dress before they all want out. Everyone is copasetic so I dart into my bedroom to pull fresh sheets on the bed while listening through the open bathroom door for emergencies cued either by screaming or silence. I put the crib mattress on the floor to change the sheet. Toren wants out. Avery cannot tolerate Eirik who is dumping water out of her Duplo’s; so I get him out of the tub with my left arm while holding slippery Toren under my right arm so he can’t escape and splash in the toilet. I nurse the brothers on my half-made bed. Toren thrashes and head-butts me in the mouth. Eirik is feeling playful and his teeth come down hard on top of Toren’s head. He starts bleeding from his gums and Toren is crying again. Avery gets out of the tubby and runs through the house dripping water everywhere. She comes back in a pink party dress and is spinning and spinning around my room. Toren is still crying. Eirik is bleeding; so I wet a washcloth for him to suck on and carry him while I drag a towel through the house with my foot to dry the floor. Avery jumps up and down on the crib mattress, and the brothers join in. Someone is about to get hurt so I tell Avery to go brush your teeth. I put the mattress, with fresh sheet, back in the crib. The babies go into their cribs and I put on some pants. Avery returns with her water bottle, climbs into my bed for books and cuddling, and head-butts me in the mouth. Eirik bounces on his mattress and knocks his teeth against the wooden crib railing. He’s bleeding again. I read to Avery as fast as I can over both babies crying. Her water spills and soaks my bedsheets; I proceed with the books as if nothing happened. When three books are read, I pick up a baby under each arm and off we go to tuck in big sister.

Motherhood is the one job you cannot walk away from and maintain status as a decent person. I recently heard self-care defined as “taking enough care of yourself that you don’t need to run away from your life”. I get that. I like my gig but I still need an hour to myself every day; a morning once a week; a week’s vacation once a year. I have no idea how to get this kind of time; but if I don’t I may well want to run away from my life, and that motivates me to figure it out.

I wish previous generations of women had told us what we were getting ourselves into; not that it would have made any difference. No prospective mother is going to opt out because someone tells her it’s hard. We are all the more intrigued.

If I didn’t have my kids I would have been sad forever. It is amazing to watch them grow and become who they are. But more often than not, parenting is also, as one mom puts it, “like bleeding from your eyeballs”. Just this once I would like to send a different message out into the world, and say: If you wanted kids and didn’t end up with them, you might be doing all right.

Life offers a fine line between have to and get to. Responsibilities bring joy. Hard work is fun. I am so pleased to raise my children, and sometimes I would like to do something else. Because satisfaction lives just over the horizon, and this shit is only fun if there’s nowhere else you would rather be.

Mom slave

I can’t believe how trashed my house is lately. Before I had kids I remember visiting homes with a lot of children and being surprised that no one cleaned for my arrival. Now I know, they did.

My mom is an exemplary housekeeper. Her house is not clutter-free but it’s always clean. She takes ownership over the problem; takes charge. Not because the mess is hers, but because the home is hers.

It seems an important detail to me, though to no one else, that all that shit on the floor is on a relatively brief rotation. Those empty spaces were occupied only moments before. Toys. Clothes. Yesterday’s waffles. This is how we live.

Weekends are particularly nuts around here. Comically nuts. Tonight, I push the breakfast dishes towards the middle of the table to serve dinner.

Avery looks around the room and says, “You know grandma’s house? Grandma’s house is really clean, isn’t it?”

Child. I’m trying.

*

Hopefully you’ve got a good woman who keeps the home front chaos down to a reasonable roar. Cleaning is optional for men, but the state of a woman’s home reflects her value as a wife, mother, and human being. If a guy is a complete slob you can look the other way or make excuses for him. “Helluva guy,” you might say. “His wife could use a little help around the house though.”

I’ll be damned if I don’t do anything with my day but tidy up. I maintain a house that is only reasonably messy as a feminist ideal but I am my own worst critic. It’s not my mess; but somehow it is my mess. Expect me to be defensive.

My mind is wired in a relational way. I spend a lot of time helping kids work through needs and conflicts. When they are copacetic, I try very hard to stop cleaning so that play, adventure, and creativity happen. This is the scale I wish to be measured by.

I want my family to be involved with the housework. Avery and I made a chart of 10 chores that need to be done every day. Dishes. Laundry. Prepare food. Clear table. Feed dog. Tidy books. Shelve shoes. Make beds. Sweep. Pick up toys. In reality I do some of these things multiple times a day but once is enough to avoid a house of “sloven filth,” as my husband calls it.

Sloven filth reflects upon a woman’s character; never a man’s. It remains an unwritten rule that house cleaning must come first. You can teach the babies to speak Swahili, but if the kitchen floor remains unswept then nobody cares. I rail against this reality like a rebellious teen.

My husband does not understand. “If you would clean the kitchen,” he says, “things would be a lot less chaotic for you.” Every Saturday morning he makes the kitchen his project. He cleans (zero babies under foot) faster and better than I ever do. Then he lays down on the couch as if to say, “Did that. I’m done.”

My cleaning style is a tireless dance of shifting objects. Collect cups, place next to sink. Gather perishable food, place next to fridge. Remove dirty socks, toss toward hamper. Each time I step out onto the floor I aim to restore spaces to a more sane situation if never quite to sanity. I never lie on the couch. I am never done.

When a husband or grandma out-cleans me, I get depressed. Here I am trying to be a parenting slouch (ie. maintain boundaries or eat breakfast) only to have other well-meaning adults pick up the slack. It’s embarrassing. In your presence I have no choice but to rally or cease to function.

In my husband’s most recent tirade through the cabinets, he paused, seeing that I stacked some glass bowls and lids. “Tupperware looks good,” he said.

It was meant as a compliment. But I do not want to be celebrated for my victories over Tupperware. How about, “Really? Avery has stopped biting the brothers?” Or, “Wow! The babies are falling asleep on their own?” Or, “Everyone is still alive?!” Bravo!”

Yeah. I did that.

*

Can the kids help? If only my children would stop destroying the house while I clean; that would be a good start. I’ve been trying to teach the brothers not to pull books off the shelves. They persist, but now Eirik says, “stopstopstop” while he does it. Maybe that’s an improvement?

In cultures where kids do chores willingly, parents include toddlers in house work as they become interested. Toren is constantly in the dust pile or grabbing for the broom while I sweep. He climbs into the dishwasher but he also helps me to close it. I will encourage him.

Sometimes Avery gets invested in our chore chart, but she is more interested in doing laundry than anything else. Mistakes have been made, and I may have to play hardball.

In serious chore face-offs I tell my daughter , “I can’t help you until you help me.” This is extreme, but also effective. She will learn to pick up or wipe her own bottom. Either way, it’s a win for me.

This morning, Avery cuts a scrap of paper into smitherines. “You’re making a mess,” I say. “Stop and clean up, please.”

“No,” she says, confidently. “You can pick that up later when I’m at school.”

Right. But did you have to say it out loud?

*

Clean is ephemeral; mess is forever. Eternal tidiness models a reality where mom has nothing better to do than clean up after other people. The need is real, but the expectation is unreasonable.

Last night I dreamed that I had completed “warrior training” and was being driven somewhere for my final test. Imagine my surprise when we pulled up to… my own home. Inside, an army of people waited to capture me and “make me their slave”. I did not escape; but neither did I lose hope.

As a kid I had a friend with a lot of siblings and blessedly little supervision. The yard was a child’s fantasy world where a hose ran 365 days a year. All of the neighborhood kids hung out there. In summer we dug and filled swimming pools. In winter we used 5-gallon buckets to make ice blocks for igloos. We built a treehouse with real boards, nails, and hammers and never an adult anywhere.

Inside, gloppy peanut butter and jelly goobers covered the oak table and a blue macaw scattered sunflower seeds across the living room carpet. I wondered why their mom didn’t clean it up. I never thought that she did, or that maybe we kids, or her husband, should do some cleaning. You might as well have suggested that the parrot pick up after himself.

Mom jobs are often invisible. Patriarchal culture implies that they are also easy. When we can’t keep up, we are left to wonder what is wrong with us. Moms are shamed into accepting the never-ending chore vortex as our lot in life. We work harder, have less to show for it, and say nothing.

I have few memories of that neighbor mom when she wasn’t carrying a laundry basket. But once, I saw her on the couch reading a novel. I remember because I’d never seen a mom read before. She was up against an impossible task; but I hope that messy house was in part the result of a high-quality no on her part.

I will not be your mom slave.

If we want better for our daughters, we have to want better for ourselves. Don’t mother away your personhood. Resist. It’s hard to let the dishes sit and do a thing, but this poem by Tess Gallagher helps:

I Stop Writing the Poem

to fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I’m still a woman.
I’ll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I’ll get back
to the poem. I’ll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there’s a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it’s done.

*

Real things

I’ve been reflecting on a conversation I had 15 years ago, with my friend E, when we lived at the edge of the Arctic Circle. Neither of us had partners or children yet, and we shared great conversation and sourdough waffles every Saturday morning.

“What do you want your life to be about?” I asked.

“I think a lot about real things,” she said.

This woman, in her early 20s at the time, earned a perfect score on her SATs and opted to major in home economics. She was a flawless baker, sewer, knitter, teacher, and cafe owner. She once taught me to properly fold a fitted sheet (sorry E; I continue to wad it up into a ball).

For me, blinky-flashy things like phones are the opposite of real. Everything in there is virtual. I held out on getting my first cell phone until a day in 2006 when I needed a payphone, and I couldn’t find one. In 2011 I finally sent a message to all my contacts that said, “I text now.” I pushed the 7 key four times to get the letter T.

Today I have an outdated iPhone that I use (yes, writing on it now), but also sort of resent. I resent the $160 a month we pay for a service I value at half the price. I resent the way music, which used to play continuously, is now interrupted. I resent the way my husband texts while I am speaking to him and calls it “multi-tasking.” We’ve been together ten years and still don’t recognize each other’s hand writing.

Technology, fine. But what of relationships? I prefer that people use their phones in private (gasp!) because a phone used in shared space quickly shifts we energy into me energy. In gaining all of this personal choice, we’ve lost a lot of comradery.

Photo by R. Evanson

In my home, I am the ultimate real thing. My children are forever climbing on, playing with, and eating me. I rarely use a phone in front of my kids because I can’t. It’s impossible. My husband is exempt from all this and I am very, very jealous.

I also save phone use for nap time because Avery models herself after what I do, and not what I tell her to do. I carefully call this thing a phone and our phone instead of my phone, and I let Avery use it whenever she has a reasonable purpose. I hope she won’t decide she needs one anytime soon because I will never hear the end of it. #littlebull #strongwilledchild #taurus

There is nothing wrong with phones as tools. Photograph. Call. Look up. Pay. Deposit. Text. Social. Read. Listen. But be conscious of how you distract yourself from life. On days when I am over it, I sneak one earbud in and use an audiobook to tune out my children while I parent. I will die the day Avery does this to me.

*

Little kids love real things. Avery employs what we call the object of the week: Life jacket. Ice pack. A few yards of magenta ribbon. Hand soap. First aid supplies. Two breast milk saver bags. Some long blades of dry rye grass. A broken strand of faux pearls. She plays until the object’s uses are exhausted and then moves on to the next real thing.

She is also fascinated by the blinky flashy.

Well-meaning adults are always trying to connect with Avery through their screens. The first time baby Avery met her grandpa he handed her a phone to chew on. When I objected, he was confused. “Because it’s dirty?” He asked.

Once I had to work on a Saturday and my daughter stayed with dad. When I came home, I found two-year-old Avery plugged in and watching the movie Frozen for the second time that day. I will never forgive him this.

Childhood is short and every minute of screen time makes it shorter. To everyone else: I am with them for 100 waking hours a week. You have them for a minute. Couldn’t you do something else?

Adult priorities are clear: All a child has to do is follow your gaze. Yes, getting things done with kids around is impossible. But whenever you can, engage. Swings. Books. Blocks. Paint. Soccer balls. Monkey bars. Bikes. Dirt. Animals. Plants. Music. Food. Love manifests as time and attention.

*

Avery and I have a friend who comes from the last generation of real things. She and her husband have lived in a cabin without running hot water for decades. They turn compost, prepare root vegetables for lunch, ride bicycles as often as they drive cars, and repair their own shoes. This woman reads poems to Avery about kids splashing in creeks and taught her to make little boats out of alder leaves. For all the outside influences my kid is exposed to, she is the one I’m most grateful for.

I want my kids to grow up rooted in real. I sometimes pick up maps, cameras, and novels instead of using a phone for everything just so they learn to use these objects. I want to start buying CDs again so Avery can thumb through them to discover music. I’m sure all of this is mostly futile but maybe not completely.

Childhood is about exploring places and objects, building skills, following curiosity, and discovering the power of creativity. I thought summer vacation would be a time of dandelion crowns, sand castles, and tadpoles. And it is. It is also an endless opportunity for a child to beg for sugar and episodes.

Screen time is a serious crux of parenting. On one hand, a child in front of a screen is doing almost nothing of value. On the other hand, the thought please go away and leave me alone so I can do something is never far from my mind.

I aim to keep our family’s screen time just under the brain rot line. I don’t care if my kids are plugged in for 45 minutes at a time if the show won’t inspire nightmares or teach bad language; and as long as kids do something involving brain, muscle, cooperation, or coping skills before and after watching.

I deal with Avery’s constant requests by making screen time predictable and available for a price. She earns daily episodes by napping or playing alone for 30-45 minutes. Between the earning and the episode, I’m able to make dinner.

That’s the theory. But I’m struggling a little this summer with sneaky screen time: We both like it when Avery is plugged in; so I keep finding excuses to allow her more.

Like, she watches something while I do her hair and continues while I put the brothers down for their morning nap. I justify this screen time by requiring it to be in Spanish.

But she actually watches twice each day.

Then there are storm days, which are long; especially when we are up at 5 AM. When a blizzard or torrential rain keeps us inside, and I am tired, the thought please go away and leave me alone so I can do something is very, very loud. So Avery watches a movie while I listen to classical music, drink black tea, and write for an uninterrupted couple of hours the way I did before I had children, and I feel very, very happy.

And screen time happens a third way.

This morning, Avery showed her dad a video game on her little camera. It’s been fun for her to change the screen and hear the bubbly electronic music; but thus far she has not known how to play the game. Within a few clicks of his thumb, however, my husband has her disappearing bricks from a candy-colored wall. And now I shall be in constant conversation with Avery about when she’s allowed to play this game, and for how long, and why she’s not allowed to play it more.

Because I don’t want a fourth reason.

*

My friend E and I have each moved a few times since those languid, chatty Saturday mornings. We each married and birthed a couple of kids. Our interactions are usually limited to an exchange of holiday cards but I got in touch while working on this post.

“Remember, the real things?” I ask. “What does that look like for you these days?”

For her, as for me, real things are defined as much by what they are not as by what they are. Her family confines laptops, printers, scanners, speakers, and phones to a technology room (Did I mention she taught technology?). The rest of the home gets to stay real.

She also recognizes the importance of real food. She prioritizes cooking farm-fresh meals and canning salsa with her daughter while the baby sleeps. “My kitchen is a disaster 100% of the time,” she says.

E prepares fresh veggies and homemade pasta, but her daughter’s request for lunch will always be… you guessed it. “I have no idea what the allure is with boxed Mac and cheese,” she says. “There must be a spell on it or something.”

Kids get hijacked into virtual worlds and virtual foods at least as easily as adults are. Certainly we have less control over what content and calories they consume as they grow. But for the millionth time, caring for others is an inroad to caring for ourselves. At least E and her husband are eating homemade pasta. At least her daughter understands this as a possibility.

Buttressing family life with real things feels like a sort of protection from the spell of the blinky flashy guaranteed to show up in our childrens’ lives. “As long as their days are filled with curiosity and adventure,” says E, “I don’t think a few shows will hurt anyone. At least that’s my hope.”

Photo by R. Evanson

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