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.

***

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

***

Boundaries

Lying in a yellow hammock with my golden-haired daughter, I read The Secret Life of Trees and watch the first leaves fall. It is the last warm day of summer. I would like to feel charmed but my squirrel will not sit still.

“What do you need? I ask. “Why are you so wiggly?”

“Mama, I need silly love,” she says.

Uh oh.

Silly love is Avery’s name for tactile, sensory affection. In manifests in her pressing her body against mine for all she’s worth. In one such moment she said, “Mama, I want to climb back inside your body.”

Avery’s need to give and receive love does not shame her. She’ll make you the craziest gift of post-it notes scribbled with stick figures and letters, wrap it in pipe cleaners and electrical tape, and offer it up with stars in her eyes. “I love you,” she says, pink glitter flowing forth. Hers is a love unafraid.

You know you are the object of Avery’s affection when every sentence serves as an excuse to say your name. “Heidi,” she says, “you know next summer when I turn five? I’m going to need a really big cake for more candles, Heidi. And purple roller skates, Heidi.”

Avery has two friends who also receive this special treatment. I fear the rejection she will eventually face; but that’s my baggage. As her mother, I for one will try to reflect Avery’s effusive brand of love to her.

Spinning-out-of-control happens when Avery needs affection, but also when she is tired and hungry, I’m busy with the brothers, she’s mad because I took away her butterfly wings (stop jumping off the couch!), or we are trying to leave the house.

It takes a few minutes before I recognize why the room is exploding into chaos. By that time Avery is running circles around Toren or chasing him until he falls over. She spins upward and outward, like the bubble gum she’s infatuated with, until she’s on the ceiling. Faster and faster; the bubble expands until she’s in trouble and it pops in a tantrum — hers or mine.

No words can calm her. I ask my friend T how to curb this energy; but I catch her in a moment of nostalgia. Her kids are bigger than mine, and they’ve moved on from wanting her in this I love you, I love you, I hurt you way. “Four year-olds are a more condensed, beautiful version of themselves,” she says. “It fades, somehow, as they grow.”

*

I always feel the need to interfere with silly love; so I don’t really know what Avery is driving towards. Back in the hammock, I wonder what will happen if I do nothing. The brothers are asleep and I have no pressing appointments. I pull the fabric around until we become two peas in a pod. We tickle and play. I am holding my thumb and index finger an inch apart and saying, ‘don’t squish the invisible man!’ in a silly voice when the licking begins.

It’s like a run-in with a puppy. “Blech!” I say. “I don’t like it!” She weighs less than 40 pounds but she is strong and seated on my chest. There isn’t much I can do.

Avery reveals possessive and jealous feelings with tension around her mouth. As a toddler she popped non-food items inside as a symbol of ownership. I would come to take something away, and in it went. Mine.

She is not going to stop. “I don’t like it when you do that!” I say. “I don’t like where this is going!”

I use the phrase I don’t like it when you do that to express any breach of boundaries. I learned it from a preschool teacher, and these words continue to blow my mind. Like, you can just say that?

Telling her how I feel maintains my integrity regardless of whether or not Avery stops. Her response doesn’t matter; in fact, I’m giving this to her. She stops when she’s ready. I am tired from laughing but no worse for the wear.

*

Since most people don’t like to be the object of an obsession, and because I would enjoy this mothering journey quite a bit more with 18” of personal space, Avery and I talk a lot about boundaries.

I worry that I might sound rude when I speak boundaries but I am learning to ignore those thoughts. Polite, direct communication benefits everyone. If you or your child is the subject of a boundary that I am protecting, please recognize that I would also protect your boundaries if you ever needed me to.

I also acknowledge body language and other forms of non-verbal communication. A scrunch of the nose. A lift of the eyebrows. The babies offer ample opportunity for Avery to practice. “Did you see that?” I ask. “Toren moved away from you. He doesn’t like what you’re doing,” I say.

“But mom,” she says. “I love him.”

“I know, sweetie. But all you can do is offer an invitation. If he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to.”

Kids learn to respect boundaries by observing their parents’ boundaries. That’s why kids aren’t allowed on my lap while I’m eating. Unless holding that baby is the only foreseeable way for me to finish my meal. Then, by all means, climb aboard. And the babies stay in their cribs at night; unless I perceive, through blurry eyes, that my chances of a restful night’s sleep are better if they are in bed with me.

You see how things get squishy.

But clearly, I have boundaries. The other day I was on the toilet and nursing Eirik when I heard Avery say, “Mama? Can you help me with this zipper?”

Feeling generous, I invited her in. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll help.”

She was surprised, and a wee bit jealous, to see me sitting there with her baby brother, and she asked, “Mama, can I sit on your lap?”

“No,” I said. “You can’t.”

Real boundaries are easy for me to stick by; though not boundaries surrounded by any degree of idealism. For example, when we tried, briefly, to teach baby Avery to sleep on her own, my husband and I sat in the next room wringing our hands and watching timers while she cried. We decided it wasn’t worth it; and I unwittingly committed several hours a day, for the next two years, to getting her to sleep.

With the twins, mama ain’t got time for that. I’m not going to the brothers in the night and I hope for the love that they learn to link sleep cycles very soon. I don’t mind the crying because sound sleep is a necessary end goal. Mama at your beck-and-call is not a sustainable system for a house full of kids. Everyone’s got to do their part to make nighttime work. This shift in perspective makes the addition of twins easier than the addition of my first baby.

*

In the afternoon, Avery is playing in her little swimming pool when dad comes by. He has a net and starts to scoop out the leaves littering the water’s surface. “Dad,” she says, “please don’t do that while I’m in the pool.”

Mama is very impressed with her words.

But my husband, focused on the task, brushes aside her voice: “I’m just cleaning a little,” he says. Mama lowers her brow like a bull lowering its horns.

What should we do when our boundaries are expressed but not respected? I am trying to get more and more clear with my language as opposed to getting louder and louder (or quieter and quieter) with my voice. But it’s hard to do. I should coach Avery to continue the dialogue, but I also want her to know that mama got her back.

People need to learn that no means no and yes means yes. When kids say, “tickle me!” start and stop when they want you to. Lessons on body boundaries that we receive during childhood rough housing are carried with us into our adult sexuality. Let’s not confuse things.

“She asked you to stop,” I say, my voice rich with meaning. M nods, catching my drift, and leaves the leaves to float.

***

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.

***

Return to safety

In August, my 15-year-old dog became infested with biting bugs that were neither ticks nor fleas. We had just returned from a trip that included a jet ride from Anchorage to Juneau, and I was sure Talus had picked up something devastating in doggie cargo.

The bugs were a quarter-of-an-inch long, with antennae and spindly legs. I pulled twelve off of him in quick succession, and they squished red with his blood. Talus had also spent a six-hour ferry ride in my car, and the kids and I suffered bites from an earlier life stage if we drove anywhere.

The vet set me up with a flea and tick medication but it didn’t work. Meanwhile, the bugs were multiplying. They covered my dog, the porch, and the tall plants around the house. We sent pictures to vets around the state; no one could identify them. I googled and convinced myself that they were an invasive species carrying a deadly, degenerative neurological disease.

“If you find one,” the website said, “don’t touch it.” I had already squished a hundred of them between my thumb and forefinger.

*

I have been sensitive to stress and anxiety lately. When school got out in May I took on all three of my kids full-time, and it’s more than a full-time job for one person. The brothers are into everything, and Avery only moves at one speed. Routines get us through the day and out the door, and various systems help me procure groceries, complete chores, prepare dinner, and get everyone to bed. But even the best day takes everything I have.

When things go wrong, I see that I normally function very close to my ceiling. During periods of overwhelm, I struggle with a permeating fear that I can not keep all of my children safe at the same time.

To make matters worse, the weather forecast called for an atmospheric river. I had no desire to repeat December’s deluge, when 48-hours of rain flooded our town and left me and the kids without power for 36-hours.

Talus was quarantined to the outdoors, but on one very rainy night (before googling) he slept in the Arctic entryway. A few days later, I found tiny bugs around the baseboard of my home. A larger life stage climbed the back of the house in droves. The siding, it seemed, provided an optimal environment for molting into their final, winged stage.

Ten years ago, I escaped to this one-horse town. I wanted meaningful work or no work, and I dreamed of the creative life. I needed a quiet, low-stress place close to nature to support my mental health. I needed to live low on the hog and be time rich so I could write away the days and spend evenings singing at the open mic. In retrospect, I was also drawn here by the uncompromised feeling of physical safety.

For me, this is the safest place in the world. Not once have I gotten up in the middle of the night to lock the front door; not even when my husband is away. Threat had to travel 1000-miles outside of its natural range to find me; and take on a form no lock can keep out.

When the bugs moved in, I felt an impulse to jump on the jet and take my kids back to Anchorage. Hard times, for me, have mostly come with a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on. Being well-supported by parents, friends, and a wide circle of extended family has led me to trust well in the Universe’s intentions; but I’ve struggled to trust my own ability to work through daunting tasks. Running away from problems has always seemed like a great option. Let someone else be the hero.

But what of my home? My dog? The desire to flee and return only when the monsters are gone comes from a worn out and child-like place within my psyche. With practice, I recognize where thoughts come from, and choose to act only on those that align with my most whole-hearted values.

The right thing was to stay; but I needed help. A friend dropped what she was doing to hang out with my kids while I’ve vacuumed Talus, the baseboards, and the outside of the house. I taped the Arctic entry off like a crime scene.

That night, lying in bed, I gathered my courage and sank deep in to feel the fear permeating my body. My throat felt dark, heavy, and inflexible; like it was encased in rock. I could barely breathe. Every half-breath built upon the layers; laying more rock to crush my heart and churn in my stomach.

For every constricting thought, there is an expansive antidote. I needed water – both gentle enough to welcome in and powerful enough to move mountains. I imagined myself lying in a small but swift stream. It flowed clean and clear – over, around, and through me – and lapped at the terror until, slowly, it gave way. The water drew that energy out of me and left spaciousness in its place. The water slowed and pooled, leaving my body calm and floating freely.

*

I asked my husband to come home, but he was looking at a short weather window and a concrete pour scheduled for the next day. We brainstormed solutions. In the morning, I called my mom.

She listened, despite pre-coffee haze, as I told of my home infested with potentially deadly insects; that they were eating from my dog as if he were an all-you-and-your-offspring-can-eat-buffet, and I didn’t know how to get rid of them except to put him down. I told her of an atmospheric river on its way; that I was afraid. She threw work gloves, rain gear, and insecticides into a suitcase and was on the 11 o’clock flight.

On day 1 we scrubbed somberly and bug-bombed the car. I vacuumed the siding again and sprinkled diatomaceous earth around the perimeter of the house. I changed sheets and hauled clutter to the garage. The atmospheric river didn’t materialize but it was rainy nonetheless. I arranged another place for us to stay for a few days starting the following Saturday.

That night, I held my baby boys in my arms as I slept. Grandma slept with Avery; her pants tucked into her socks, sweatshirt tucked into pants, and hood drawstring synched tight. Only the smallest possible section of her face was allowed to peep through. We protected what we could.

On day 2, results came back from the state entomologist, plus a friend with a microscope, and a bug expert in Ohio. The unanimous verdict: Talus was covered in conifer aphids.

Veterinarians hadn’t recognized the bugs, not because they were from outside of our geographical range, but because aphids don’t affect animals. They weren’t eating my dog; he had simply picked them up while wandering through the tall grass.Talus did have fleas; or he had until the medication kicked in. So there were fleas in my car but that was it.

Scooby-doo ending: The man-eating insects were actually normal bugs. Conifer aphids were shockingly unfamiliar to me considering that they live in my usual environment; much less so than the regular garden variety. Maybe because they live high up in trees? It was a generally buggy summer, and they must have been unusually numerous. For better or worse, I know a lot about them now.

Even after the benign end to my B-string horror movie, it took some time to calm down. The threat wasn’t real but the fear was. “Pretty soon,” I told a friend, “I plan to be laughing.”

*

What did I get out of this experience? Quite a bit, actually. Even as it was unnecessary, I’m proud of my perseverance and bug mitigation. I feel pretty cool for how I handled it. Also, during the high stress of summer I wanted to be somewhere else than with my children at all times. But, after 48-hours of living with an imagined threat to their lives, I don’t feel that way anymore. I love being with my babies.

Did I clean? Joyfully. Mom slave feelings were temporarily suspended. I washed every cabinet inside and out. I scrubbed play dough and mac & cheese out of chair cushions. I decluttered and purged. I waged an all-out war on the dust mites. I worked like I might never stop.

At the end of the day, I sat down with my family to a regular-kind hectic meal. It had been a while since I thanked the stars for everything I have. I looked around at my clean home and breathed in a bellyful of gratitude for my mom, my kids, my dog, my health, and the return of safety.

***

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.

*

40

Avery counts the deep lines etched across my forehead. “One… Two… Three… Four.” Then she asks, “How many do I have, mama?” I tell her there are none but she doesn’t believe me. She climbs a stool to look into the mirror. “Zero,” she says; surprised and faintly disappointed.

This is what 40 looks like.

Forty hid far enough over the hill that I never gave it much thought until I turned thirty and the inevitability dawned on me. Looking for a fuller picture, I started asking 40-year-old people, “What are you excited about in the decade to come?”

“Gaining weight,” they said. “Losing hair from where it should be and growing hair from places where it shouldn’t be.”

What’s so great about 40? For starters, I know who I am, what I do, where I live, and who I love. I’m calmer and more confident. I have courage enough to admit what I don’t know. I forgive more and react less. I choose people who show up in my life over those who don’t.

When I look back on my 20s, I wish I’d been easier going and kept a lighter mind. For a while, fear of never finding love and family juiced the sweetness out of life and left me sucking a dry lime. Even when I got what I wanted; I found that I didn’t end up wanting what I got. Sure, I had some fun. But I lacked the perspective to understand how good life was; so it almost didn’t count.

The runes offered the same advice often enough that I started to pay attention: Be receptive, they said. If free will made me miserable, then maybe receptivity could bring something like happiness. So at twenty-eight I decided to do it: I would pursue nothing in favor of radical acceptance. For a few years, it worked. Aside from one bad night on the floor of a south-bound train out of Mumbai, it went very well.

Life is a game of Twister; not darts. Once I calibrated to this way of thinking the pieces started to come together. As my 30s ticked by (where did that decade go?), a lot of the things I lost sleep over in my 20s came to fruition. Partner. Home. Kids. The spinning brain cogs clicked and some of life’s overwhelming number of possible paths melted away. Anxiety dissipated. I gave up movement – temporarily at least – for a wild and terrible stillness.

A note of warning: When you open to the will of the universe, expect the unexpected.

At 40, I feel grown up. I’ve finally started to refer to myself as woman, rather than girl. I know when to hold ’em and when to fold ‘em. I’ve lost my thin tolerance for pop music. I’m quicker to drop grudges. If absolutely necessary, I can drink coffee black. Other than that, I’m the same person I was at twenty-eight.

Forty is where it is at. I’m ready settle in to the quiet landscape of my body; to stop living every day like an emergency; to recognize the miracle held in every pale, tangerine sunrise.

I miss the strength, infatuations, collagen, and wide-eyed aspirations of my 20s, but I wouldn’t go back and do those years again. Unless I could go back to my 20-something body and keep my 40-something mind. Then, I would definitely go back. That would be awesome.

*

When my friend T turned 40 she took a new job. Right away she knew it wasn’t for her, and she quit within the week. “At 40 I don’t have very many fucks left to give,” she said, “and I’m careful who I give them to.” We reveled knowing that at another time she would’ve stayed in that job for a year. Or years.

Mother. Adventurer. Artist. Healer. Advocate. I love who I am, and I have stopped hoping to become someone else. The best part of being 40 is a surprising sense of the unknown. Family restricts my freedom; but with my need for belonging saturated I can finally relax and wonder, what could the rest of my life be about?

The universe is full of solar systems a galaxies light years away. Everything matters, and nothing matters. Because what are we made of, but star dust?

*

The first age spots appeared on the backs of my hands this year, and I’ve been preaching the virtues of sunscreen to my daughter. It’s probably too late for me, but who knows? If I start wearing it now, maybe I’ll look great at fifty.

The same friends who turned 40 when I was 30 turned 50 this year. So I ask again: “What are you excited about in the decade to come?”

“Gaining weight,” they say. “Losing hair from where it should be and growing hair from places where it shouldn’t be.”

One of those 50-year-old friends is a photographer. I recently caught him taking pictures of a beautiful old tractor that sits gathering rust and lichen in a field near my home. He’s lived here twenty years, and I’m sure he has a thousand pictures of the thing. Yet the evening light was nice. I couldn’t resist calling out: “Haven’t gotten around to capturing that one yet?”

Tractor, September 2018

Tractor, September 2021

He shrugged in response. Maybe returning to whatever we love over and over again is as good a way to mark the passing of years as any.

What am I excited about in the coming decade? Play. Laughter. Movement. Delight. I exist well enough in this world of straight lines; but I would like to meet a version of myself with more my oil in my hips. I want to inhale deeply, and exhale fully, without thinking about it. I figure I might as well start being young now, before it’s too late.

***

Culinary Adventures

I like to cook; but I love to be fed. Somehow this dichotomy served me well in my first two decades of adulthood. But then it was 2020 and I found myself cast as the mother in a family of five. My under-confidence in the kitchen exacerbated our dinner stress, and I figured, as long as I am responsible for feeding all of these hungry people forever, I might as well learn. Time to take my meatballs out of my apron pocket.

I’m not a bad cook. I can make something robust, filling, and even tasty; but I am slow and my repertoire is limited. I only cook when I have unlimited time and that occurs under one condition: When pigs fly.

A big problem is that I start making dinner without an end goal. Seriously. I have no idea what these ingredients might combine to become. My only objective is to use up the vegetables before they liquify in the bottom of the refrigerator. I chop and sauté, add things from cans, and voila! A soup is born.

If I make anything other than soup, I screw up the details. I start with polenta, but turn the whole steaming potful into a baked cornmeal pizza crust. Toppings shift out of beans and cheese and into pesto and olives. Or leftover brown rice sneaks its way into Thai dishes. I am forever mixing and matching Asian sauces. Every meal is as much a surprise to me as to anyone else. Nothing ever tastes quite right.

“You are crossing cultures,” my husband complains.

This from a guy who puts ranch dressing on tacos. “How come when you do it, it’s fusion cooking, but when I do it it’s a mistake?” I ask.

“Because when I do it,” he says, “it’s delicious.”

Fine.

I surround myself with good cooks; which is not entirely coincidental. My husband must have been a five-star chef in a past life. He is a wealth of culinary insight, and for no obvious reason.

One afternoon, M stops home for lunch and I proudly serve him a turkey-havarti melt with avocado and homemade pesto. His response: “Any chance of a little tomato?”

M always knows what he wants. The flip-side is he doesn’t receive mediocre food well. He does not even receive good food well if it could be improved upon. For ten years I have avoided conflict with my husband by not bothering to feed him.

I slice the tomato, muttering not-so-under-my-breath. I’m fishing for an apology. He opens his mouth, and I look up. He says, “Do we have any red onion?”

I would hate him for this, except the sandwiches turn out so special.

Food presses me to answer questions of desire that I have long avoided: What do I crave? What might fulfill me? What do people eat, anyway?

My home cooking started the way all of my best learning does: By circling in from a seemingly unrelated point, taking my sweet time, and enjoying myself along the way.

Several months in, I had little to show for my efforts except better breakfast foods and baked goods that I was already pretty good at making. I spent hours in the kitchen, and still there was nothing to eat. One night, all I had to show for myself was peanut sauce, roasted veggies, and rice. “Is this dinner?” Avery asked. Um, yes?

Feeding children is tricky. I prepare dinner under the guise of feeding them but let’s be honest: They want yogurt and toast. And tacos. I could throw a taco at them every night and nobody would complain.

Best that I please myself whenever possible. I find myself doing crazy things; like I’ll be inspired by a vegan recipe but then I’ll add dairy and meat or make it gluten-free. Good stuff happens this way but it isn’t efficient. Fake parmesan and vegan butter, while interesting, are not exactly necessary.

Also, I do have to feed the children. I did a couple of experiments with meatless meats that didn’t go over well. Avery refused to eat the first one, and that should have been my sign. On the second foray she said, “Mama, if it doesn’t look like meat, and it doesn’t taste like meat, it isn’t meat.”

Learning any skill necessitates a certain willingness to fail. I experiment with new recipes when M is out of town so that my inner midwestern farm-wife doesn’t fret about pleasing him. But Avery let’s me know if I miss the mark.

Avery has her father’s pallet. She will eat whatever I make as long as it is delicious. Also, she needs presentation. I can have all of the elements of a meal ready to go; but if it falls apart into a pile of crying babies at the last minute and looks like pig slop she goes on hunger strike.

I want to make wholesome, healthy, delicious food. Sounds simple. But who cooks this way? Where are my people? Also, how do I create delightful meals without a lot of planning and fuss? If mung bean sprouts and ripe avocados grew out of my ears I would be much better at this.

Time to get goal-oriented. Every weekend I jot a quick list of things to make throughout the week and endeavor to do one creative thing in the kitchen every day. I visit the library and check out all the cookbooks. I bookmark everything that looks good, then become so overwhelmed that I go back and shove everything through the slot.

Later, I try again. Mercifully, an epiphany brings relief: Food is themed. Ethnicities. Seasons. Colors. Certain things go together, and certain things don’t. With a little research I also pick up a new recipe app that allows me to organize recipes this way and it gives me the feeling that life will go on. This is where I’m at, people.

Here are some profiles I am playing with:

Southeast Asian: Red curry paste, mung bean sprouts, cilantro, peanuts.

Mediterranean: Parsley, basil, thyme, tomato, olives, lemon, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, mozzarella, parmesan.

Mexican: Black beans, tomato, corn, chili powder, cumin, avocado, lime, red onion, cilantro.

Japanese: Soy sauce, miso, ginger, sesame, green onion, rice wine vinegar, seaweed.

Themes keeps me on task. I get a lot of mileage out of making sure I can name a dish, and clarify its ethnic origins before I start cooking. It’s also possible that thematic thinking affects my shopping more than my cooking. I don’t need to know what’s for dinner when I put in an order; but if I buy green onions then I also need ginger and miso. If I’m craving sun-dried tomatoes it’s worth picking up some feta. You’re welcome.

Getting interested in food, leaning in, has turned cooking from a source of stress into a source of pleasure. If I accomplished nothing except that I change 100 diapers and a day I feel sort of, meh. If I change 100 diapers, and make ratatouille, I feel awesome.

Eventually, I found a few sources that check all the boxes for me. Favorite cookbooks include Nourish by Cara Rosenbloom and Nettie Cronish and the Run Fast, Eat Slow series by Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky. Angela Liddon of Oh She Glows is a vegan genius and few things taste so good as vegetarian dishes by Cookie and Kate.

Cooking has also improved my diet more than restricting food ever did. The more I prepare inspiring vegetables, and seek protein in beans and seeds, the more I crave those foods.

My time in the kitchen is shifting out of responsibility and into play. I get to have a little adventure, protected there behind a gate. When the babies toddle over they always leave with a snack. If anyone cries then everyone gets a cookie. I want them to enjoy time with mom in the kitchen, too.

Let’s begin.

****