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.”

***

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.

***

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.

Sleepy train

“Night night, Avery! It’s 8 p.m. and *yawn* I’m tired!” Please don’t keep me awake.”

“Okay, mama.” She tucks me in, patters off to her room, and then the bamming begins.

Avery’s bedtime has always been a nightmare. Last December I let go of my investment in her going to bed now for the sake of her going to bed at all. She stayed up for hours but at least I didn’t have to.

I struggle to bring up hard topics while they are still painfully unsolved but I hope this sleep issue is on it’s way to becoming past tense. There have been many chapters.

My husband commutes for days at a time; so when he is home I get to explain our bedtime routine, whatever the latest idea might be. “What is she doing in there?” he asked. “Rearranging furniture?”

Me: “Building furniture?”

My daughter and I have different priorities. Which is why the water in the half-bath adjacent to her room is turned off; and toilet paper, toothpaste, hand soap, scissors, and crayons are kept in locked cabinets. That’s right, those child safety locks are not only for cleaning products.

The next day, I asked: “Avery, what do you do during quiet time?”

“Just… nothing,” she said.

“I hear bamming. What are you doing in there?”

“I toss my baby in the air,” she said. “Sometimes I catch her; sometimes I don’t.”

*

I have invested thousands of hours in getting Avery to sleep. As a baby she would wake every 45 minutes unless we were touching. As soon as I got off the mattress her eyes snapped open; so I went to bed with her every night at seven.

Nothing improved as she got older. When she was two she started silly love, an infuriating boondoggle to any adult agenda. As I tried to tuck her in, she would put her head down and pike her bottom into the air; or roll over and over so the blanket wouldn’t stay in place. It never ended well.

Over the next year we tried everything: bedtime routines, charts, rewards, consequences, and punishments. Nothing worked. I figured she couldn’t act out without an audience; so I would leave. She freaked out and freaked out some more. Every failed bedtime left me asking: Harder? Or softer?

For a while I resorted to locking her in her room, which she naturally hated. Twice she managed to lock me in there, and I resolved never to do it again. Instead, I got her to stay by threatening to take the next day’s episode. That tactic worked; but it often ended with her standing in the doorway and screaming.

What to do? Beyond the purpose of getting my child to sleep, I want bedtime to be straight-forward, peaceful, and dare I say enjoyable. It happens every day, for God’s sake. At the very least it shouldn’t be traumatic.

*

Though I tried to pass the buck, Avery has never had a security blanket, favorite stuffy, or a pacifier to sleep with. She had me. I loved cosleeping for the first year. Now I would love to sleep together and hold her little foot sometimes, but I also dream of an evening hour to drink wine with my girlfriends.

Sound sleep is vital to a family’s health. Why does it have to be so hard? On one hand, a new parent is so tired and has little choice but to do whatever makes sense in the moment: Scoop that kid up, use the boobs, pull her into your bed. On the other hand, the big picture hand, you must find a way to ask more of your child. Hold the vision of her sleeping alone. Start leaning in that direction on day one.

If your baby falls asleep on the nipple, rock her to sleep in your arms instead. Work this idea until you can lay her down. Get that little bottom into a crib while still cradling her head in your hands. Perfect this dance while she is still small. If she insists on sleeping in full contact with your body, fine. But side-lie and inch her farther and farther away in those moments before she is asleep until she is only touching your pinky finger. Don’t do what I did and let her wrap herself around your neck and stay there. Once you give your child your body in sleep, she will never it let go.

*

When Avery turned two I started getting four-hour stretches of sleep in a row, and right away I was talking crazy about a second baby. Then I got twins.

I spent the summer of 2020 with my parents in Anchorage waiting to give birth to a pair of baby boys and teaching big sister to sleep by herself. My mom did the lion’s share of the work, and before our due date Avery was falling asleep in her own little room.

When we got back home to our Southeast Alaska town things got hard again, but a big shift happened when I changed from thinking Avery is being deliberately disobedient to supposing that this lousy excuse for sanity is the best she can do.

One night, as she spun out in the living room for the umpteenth time, I picked her up to carry her to bed as she wailed, “I am the baby! I am only a baby!”

Ahhh. Maybe the ‘be a big girl’ messaging wasn’t what she needed. I finally realized that the bedtime power struggle is designed to keep mama on lock down. It’s a fancy form of separation anxiety. I feel so foolish not to have understood earlier. Sometimes a three-and-a-half year old needs to know she is still little.

Our cosleeping is a result of separation anxiety, and the separation anxiety is a result of our cosleeping. This new light called for a change in tactic. I started to wonder: What if, instead of separating at night, we could all be headed to the same place? Like riding through our dreams on a sleepy train…

*

“Are you ready to ride?” I ask as we finish our books. “Where should we go tonight?”

“Antarctica!” she says. “Let’s visit the penguins!” Other popular destinations include under the ocean, outer space, California, and up north where the polar bears live.

“Sounds good. I’ll hop into my bed and meet you at the Imagination Station. Do you want to get on first and save us seats? Or should I do it?” I’m feeling encouraged. This is the first sleep solution that has worked longer than three nights.

“I’ll do it, mama. I’m sooo tired.”

We love working out the details of these train rides: Will dad already be riding when we get on? Friends from school? Grandma and Grandpa? The brothers? We think it’s funny if the babies get on first and save us seats. When this happens they have to crawl up an imaginary ramp all by themselves to get on the train, carrying tickets in their diapers.

“I don’t want to be late,” I say. “Here comes that shiny black engine number 58. It’s pulling all those passenger cars and a red caboose. It’s putting on the brakes to stop for us! See the sparks fly along the rails?”

I give her the colors , sounds, and smells of a train yard – an image of us all together – and she forgets to be afraid of our separation. “What will they serve for snacks tonight?” I ask.

“Milkshakes!” she says. “Strawberry, vanilla, or chocolate.”

“Chocolate for me, please. Put in the order and I’ll meet you at the station in a minute. I’ll be wearing a red parka.”

Before I go she touches my heart’s center with all five fingers. “Click click,” she says, and she twists her hand back and forth to connect our invisible strings.

“Thanks,” I say, doing the same thing to her. “That will help us find each other easily. Click click.” We got this idea from a childrens book: People who love each other have invisible strings running between their hearts; so no one is ever really alone.

“Can you feel my love?” I ask.

“Yes!” she says.

“What color is it?” I ask.

“Pink!” she says, snuggling down into the covers. She turns onto her left side and takes a few deep lion breath’s, and I know she is ready. I sing my way out of the room:

Here comes the train!

Chugaluging down the track;

Going, Chugaluga! Chugaluga!

Chugaluga! Chugaluga!

Chugaluga! Chugaluga!

Chooo! Chooo! Chooo!

*

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

*

Everything as it should be

Everything is as it should be.

Everything is as it should be.

Everything is as it should be.

Avery is shredding the house faster than I clean it. Eirik just pooped on the carpet. Toren is shrieking at an eardrum-blowing decibel. Why expect anything less?

My mom just left. She came to visit for the week and she played with my kids, put in my garden, and did all my chores. For the first two days I barely got off the couch. I didn’t realize I was so tired until I had an opportunity to stop and sit down. Then I struggled to get back up.

Everything is as it should be.

It’s time to discover how summer works with all three of my littles. Since I found out I was carrying twins there have been so many things I feared that never came to pass. Like I imagined I would never survive that first night before the milk comes in with two babies; but then Toren was in NICU and I was only responsible for the one.

Worry, often enough, has been useless enough, that I rarely bother with it. I don’t look at weather forecasts either – same reason. Because, sure, maybe the future will be terrible, but maybe not. Maybe it will be fine. Maybe it will be great. Better to wait and see.

The end of the school year, however, with my husband working out of town, is so far proving to be as hard as I thought it would be. The things I’ve found that help are a dinner rotation limited to spaghetti and tacos, and these words:

Everything is as it should be.

Mothering a bunch of kids at once is no laughing matter. When I ask advice from women who mother twins plus other kids they mostly shrug. Good luck with that. One twins-plus mom tells me she was so stressed raising her kids that she lived in fight or flight for twenty years. “Find a way not to do what I did,” she says.

If I get through the day in my usual way (sympathetic nervous system kicked into high gear) then everything gets done. We have a good time. The children don’t know I’m strapped. And isn’t that the point? To knock yourself out without anyone realizing how hard you’re working?

Everything is as it should be.

“What helps” changes too fast for moms to take mental note (the amygdala isn’t known for its glittering memory). The best advice on how to keep up with my flock comes from the big sisters of twins.

Everyone waits their turn,” says L. She is a photographer who helped me select photos from our twin sitting last summer. Because of her advice I flash a W to any child who starts crying. “Wait,” I say. “You’re next.” Unless someone is bleeding I finish what I am doing; there is no way I will get back to it. And when I’m nursing and Avery freaks out with jealousy, I invite her to flip a sand timer. “Five more minutes for the brothers,” I say. “Then it’s your turn.”

Another twin big-sis sends me flatrate boxes. Inside are 10 books recently outgrown by her child and individually wrapped in newspaper. “Use them any way you like,” she says. “I wouldn’t have made it through the preschool years without books as incentives.” Avery earns them whenever she has the opportunity to wake up the brothers, but doesn’t.

Everything is as it should be.

The idea of self care is an inside joke I keep with myself. Sometimes, I say (to nobody), I like to poop. I’m never alone, I don’t have much time, and it’s never when I actually feel the need to go, but sometimes I do it anyway. If you’re going to eat then you might as well poop.

Whenever I get a moment to feel and experience what is going on in my body I learn things I didn’t want to know: That my lower jaw hums with tiredness. That the freedom-loving part of me waits for these precious early years to pass into something more manageable. That what I sacrificed in becoming a mother is so much more than any childless person can understand. I can’t unlearn these things and whether or not it’s helpful for me to know them is debatable. So, unless I’m very careful, all of the laundry gets thoroughly put away and I don’t take any time for myself at all.

Everything is as it should be.

My actual self-care system is a matter of mindset more than a function of time. I do what pleases me and turn away from unreasonable demands. Every day I get outside, cook something I want to eat, and write a little. My needs ride the revolving carousel along with everyone else’s (mama gotta eat). I nap the brothers exclusively in their cart to keep us mobile and avoid conflict with my big kid during nap time and I will continue to do so even if you think it’s weird. When everyone is sleeping (praise Jesus) I write instead of scroll. I am currently reclaiming 30-minutes a day for yoga and I have a kitty tattoo for anyone who lets me get through it without interruption.

Everything is as it should be.

*

Avery’s universe

First self portrait

Photography has been a great way to connect Avery with the baby brothers and offer her a special “big sister” role at the same time. Here, for her 4th birthday, I share some favorite photos of hers that I keep in a folder called “Avery’s Universe.”

A good place to use a phone

Through these pictures I see what my daughter notices about our family. I learn more about who she is and about who we are. Best of all, these photos reflects the totality of her love; a sense of what else would I photograph?

Baby brothers
A study in brothers 1

As a photographer, a kid has this advantage: I reach for the camera when everyone is copasetic and I have a free arm. I hand Avery the camera when everything is hectic and I am hoping to occupy her. In this, she captures the speed of our life more accurately than I ever will.

A study in brothers 2
A study in brothers 3

I like her portraits. I feel drawn to them the way I am drawn into any still frame of art that captures a thing in motion; a living, breathing being in transition from one moment to the next.

A study in brothers 4

I appreciate the honesty of her lens. There is no secret working of camera angles to hide an undesirable mess or the bags under my eyes. Everything is shown as is. Life looks that way. Why wouldn’t it be in the picture?

The sun
This happened once

Casual moments, sticky surfaces, propensity for all objects to land on the floor. From a child these recorded realities come naturally; her pictures are accurate without being insulting.

Mamadada
DIY haircuts 2020

Yes, I delete ten pictures for every one I keep. But also, she is starting to ask for the camera when she sees pretty light. We are adding art words to her vocabulary: Design. Palette. Frame. Subject. Shade.

A study in brothers 5
A study in brothers 6

These pictures feel special for so many reasons, including the gaps where I use my imagination to fill in the time that passes between pictures. Flipping back through these images, I watch my sons emerge from neonates to older babies with spunk and personality. And I watch my daughter shake off the remnants of babyhood and become a strong, confident, capable kid.

A study in brothers 7
A study in brothers 8

One last special thing: Mama gets to be in these pictures. Avery is the only person who documents this chapter of my life. When she photographs me holding a baby – smiling at him or playing with him – there is no end to my pleasure. She catches me in the middle of my work and tells me that the job I am doing is good enough.

*

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.

****

The dinner breath

I’m a little short on adventure these days, though nursing hungry twins can be scary after midnight. Release the Kraken!

Evenings are also full of adrenaline. It is 4 PM. The house is a disaster, and every child is crying. I am making dinner but also I am ready to spring. The muscles of my back, neck, and jaw are coiled.

I am not entirely opposed to adrenaline. I love to ski, hike, and bike; but in those sports you can always stop and re-assess. Evenings with my family are more like running whitewater.

Something about being tired, and having a dinner-making responsibility to see through, makes the madness in my home unbearable. In a past life, the highest use of late afternoon was to fix a quiet cup of tea for some toes up time. Now, as my children hover and swarm, I feel like, Why are you still talking to me?

On the exterior I am calm. Inside, my brain turns to soup. I open the refrigerator door and forget why I opened it. Nausea sweeps through me. What is this? Oh. That’s panic. Cold, hard panic. Then I remember, green beans, and move on.

*

To freak-out is the body’s natural reaction to threat. It goes by many names… Come un-glued. Flip your lid. Lose one’s shit. The brain short-circuits, making the prefrontal cortex and all of its propensity for language and rational thought temporarily unavailable. The only problem is, wild children do not constitute an emergency.

I was never one for whitewater. In my early 20s a boyfriend wanted to learn so we spent some time at the pool and then took our kayaks to the river. In the course of a week, I swam a class II rapid, tipped on an eddy-line (and feared I would drown), and watched him washing-machine down a class IV rapid. That was enough for me.

People say we can only control ourselves. What the hell? Living in chaos, at times, renders me emotionally hijacked. I am anything but in control. Fight or flight isn’t a pleasant state to hang around in; I would gladly drop my reaction if I could. How do I make it stop?

While it is happening, I’m convinced that a nice little adult temper tantrum will restore order – for tonight and all the evenings to come. But freaking out never solved anything. Tomorrow night we will be right back here where we started. Same bat time. Same bat channel.

I want to be a calm mom. If I can pull this off, maybe my kids will look back on childhood with rose-colored glasses. Right now, I commit to figuring this out. I will learn to recover from stressful moments without to upsetting anyone.

Maybe all I need is to reframe the situation. I wonder if I could shift this daily experience out of anxiety attack and into adrenaline rush. When someone in our family is up against something difficult, we say, try again or ask for help. My husband loves whitewater. So I ask:

“You know that time, between 4 and 6 PM, when everyone has needs, and I am tired, and I need to make dinner, and it is so hard?”

“Yeah,” he says.

“It’s sort of feels like running the rapids on a river; like there’s no possibility of eddying out or making things any calmer. I just have to get through it.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Why do you like that feeling?”

“It’s a little scary,” he says. “But it’s exciting too. The danger gives you a rush.”

“Is there anything you like about whitewater kayaking that might help me get through that time of day?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I don’t think so.”

Breathe. Take a breath. This is what people say. Before you go under, I think. But one breath does nothing. I need like an hour of breathing to feel like myself again.

I’ve been working towards self-regulation for my entire adult life. Allegedly there exists a teeny tiny gap between emotion and the impulse to act. All one has to do is locate it, separate the two, and let the emotion rise and fall within the body without doing anything crazy.

You don’t have to do anything.

After decades of scanning I still don’t see that space. Anger, stress, fear, or scarcity sends me straight into whatever in-voluntarily smack-down spectacle my body orchestrates to reign in control. At the first hint of a hairline I promise to throw in a pry bar like a javelin.

Keep your head down, I tell myself. Ignore the chaos. Keep going. Ride the wave.

When you’re in a hole, and the water keeps coming, there isn’t time to think. Yet, keep paddling, and the hole will eventually spit you back out. My brain flat-lines for ten to fifteen minutes, tops. All I have to do is resist the urge to lash out for this teeny tiny slice of time. The emergency will resolve and my brain will come back online by itself.

I am motivated. Never before was every day so fraught with land mines and the stakes so precious. Maybe with compulsory daily practice I can get a combat roll down before the brothers move on to solids.

For fifteen years, I have been aware of my breath, the experience of life in my body, and the compulsory generation of thoughts. I can observe thoughts, but in a triggered state I end up bending to their whims.

In the big picture, mindfulness helps me to stay calm. But it has never helped me snap back to stasis in the heat of a moment. It occurs to me, that fight or flight is a physiological response, and if there is a way in, then there must be a way out.

With a little research I learn that the return to rest and digest status is a function of the Vagal nerve. This “wandering” nerve starts at the brainstem and meanders all the way to the gut; which is why intuition is sometimes described as a “gut” instinct. I am pleased to learn and is also sometimes called the Vagas nerve.

Goodbye reality; hello Vagas.

Want to hack your way out of fight or flight? There are quite a few ways to stimulate the Vagal nerve: Story-telling. Singing. Journaling. Belly-breathing. Splashing cold water on your face. Pressure points. Bearing down.

You mean, that I can calm down just by pretending to fart? Yes. Maybe.

Ready. Set. Vagas.

Vagal nerve strength can be measured by tracking the heartbeat. Under stress, the heart holds a constant rhythm. As a person returns from a triggered state to calm, there is more variability in the timing between heartbeats. The skill of returning quickly from a triggered state back to center is a function of vagal tone, but it also goes by another name: Resilience.

I think a lot about building resilience in myself, my children, and our family. Realizing that two separate goals just met and married in a neon chapel strikes me as very, very cool.

Vagas is the answer no matter the question.

Resilience is not a measure of grit-your-teeth endurance or the depth of your stuffed emotions. Rather, it is a measure of one’s willingness to look what is real in the eye, see it for what it is, and to do what is needed, for as long as is necessary.

Highly resilient people are no better at holding back floodwaters from bursting through the dam than anyone else; their forte is to accept the disaster, pick up the pieces quickly, and begin again.

For my part, resilience means generating less anger; valuing relationships over control; noticing the experience others are having even when I am at my whit’s end. It is stopping, before I freak out, to ask, Is this worth giving up my calm?

The finish-line for me each evening is something our family calls, the dinner breath. My husband and I made up this ritual on our second date and have kept with it ever since. We join hands with our daughter, the babies in their highchairs, and anyone brave enough to venture over for dinner at our place. We sit in stillness long enough to take one intentional inhale and exhale. We wait as the vibration of gratitude travels around the table and passes through each one of us. We are together, and that is enough.

I hope dinner time will become just another time. A regular meal. No big deal. Becoming resilient to the chaos of children gives me hope that I will make it to the table. That there will come a moment, with everyone in front of a hot meal, where nothing crazy has happened. When I sit and take hands, I finally relax. I have conquered the rapids.

You can’t buy happiness, but you can go to Vagas and that’s kind of the same thing.

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