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 make it back out, I will want summits. But even when I don’t make it to the top, I hope I will be happy. Because I was there and it was good.

***

Twins: 20 months

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I worry that our recent cold left him with an ear infection; so I take him to the doctor. His ears are fine. That’s when I realize my youngest child is a big faker. And that is the end of night milkies,

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

When joy comes

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

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

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

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

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

Life is what it is, and it is good.

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

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

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

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

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

IloveyouIloveyouIloveyouIloveyou.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

T: “I’d wear that on a T-shirt.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

Twins: 17 months

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

All time all the time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not a dumpster fire,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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.

***

Social Covid

I share a lot about how I feel without necessarily sharing how I vote. All of this has changed now that I wear my vote on my face.

The past five years have been rough. Relationships are frayed, and once again emotions are high. The question of whether people chose vaccination or not drew a clear line in the sand that used to be hazier. We are making collective decisions on how to proceed. Which side are you on?

I mask to protect myself and my unvaccinated children but also to protect you, your children, your elders, your immunocompromised, and your front-line workers. I mask out of respect for those I am in close community with. I mask to stay in community with the people in my life who cannot get this virus.

I mask out of respect for people long-hauling with Covid. It’s been a year and my sister is becoming active again; but the light in her eyes is different from how it used to be. Wearing a mask after her experience is sort of like when my grandma got breast cancer and emphysema and I decided never to become a smoker.

My family is healthy and Covid might inflict nothing more than sniffles upon us. But one can never be sure how these things will go – especially in the long term. Plan B is to get the sniffles. Plan A is not to get sick at all.

I wear a mask because I hope not to be a part of the American machine that spreads this virus. If the Center for Disease Control thinks masking is the right course of action, then fine; I’m in.

I’m doing an experiment where I never oppose my daughter. In conflict we talk about boundaries, intentions, and requests; but I never pull my love and energy away or imply that she is wrong. Yes, she is my kid; but she’s also four. I do not subscribe to all of her ideas.

That practice helps me when I see your signs. Liberty, my body my choice, I want to see your smile, just a mask just a vax just your FREEDOM. People stand on corners with a message only when we feel strongly about something. I’m paying attention. I will try to imagine what this is like for you.

Masking and vaccinations are small things to me, but I have felt the sting of threat to my body and civil rights in other contexts. It’s a crux; a conflict between what is impractical now versus the possibility of future consequences. Choose your own adventure. In one version of the story, there are no consequences; but you must be lucky.

The Covid death toll in the United States is 650, 000 people with 4.55 million deaths worldwide. Perhaps those who passed were elderly or had pre-existing conditions; perhaps not. All of these people had families and worth. Everyone is affected by others’ actions right now and when I see your signs, I register that you value personal freedom over the lives of others. It’s too extreme a comparison, but at a different sort of protest I could imagine some of these signs held by perpetrators of violent crimes, rather than by survivors and allies.

For me, masking and vaccination come from a willingness to do my part. Certainly, the precautions are overblown at times, but it’s impossible to know when they’re warranted. As you assert your rights, please respect my boundaries. Take half a step back from my kids. Ask me before you hug me. Don’t offer your child a bite of my child’s popsicle.

Masks are hot, scratchy, and make breathing uncomfortable. It’s no big deal for me to cover my mouth and nose when I pop into a store for a few minutes though I might feel differently if I had to wear one all day. As a semi-introvert with a bunch of kids, I don’t feel the loss of staying out of social spaces but I am not comparing my experience with yours. Loneliness and isolation can be devastating. I have felt that too.

I would be devastated to bring coronavirus to work and spread it around; because some people in my town would get the sniffles and others would suffer long-term injury and possibly death. Maybe those harmed would’ve gotten it somewhere else. Maybe not.

If you are an unvaccinated, unmasked frontline worker, and this feels like too much to shoulder, that’s because it is. In a parallel universe the risk and responsibility Covid poses to you would come with a cape, superpowers, and a definite pay raise. Your potential as a vector is not fair but there it is.

If you hate wearing a mask I will be understanding in mask-optional spaces; but as you smile at me please recognize that one day your breath could threaten my safety. Your smile will look very nice on that day; just as it did on all of the other days.

Our daughter is homeschooling this semester because the school is mask-optional; but also because the school communicated to parents and teachers, in writing, that masks are NOT required by saying masks are “required/recommended”. Also, our Pre-K teacher is out to finish her student teaching and I can’t imagine Avery succeeding with a long-term substitute. Most importantly: We had an alternate option.

People are homeschooling this fall for a lot of different reasons. When the vote passed to make masking optional I thought it was a win for the other side; but some of those families chose homeschool as well and I’m not sure why. Who is winning here?

I am doing all of these cautious things but you could easily find me a hypocrite. I don’t hang around unvaccinated people except when I want to; then I make exceptions. Like if you mask and social distance then maybe it’s okay. Or if you’ve had Covid already and speak openly about that. Or if I love you and cannot bear to be apart from you any longer. Maybe we can do something outside?

Last spring, after our vaccinations, Covid concerns dwindled and I got sort of lax. I got used to being unmasked and we attended birthday parties. It was nice to stop reporting on where I’d been and with whom at every social encounter. Now, with the Delta variant, I am reigning myself in. So far in this process I have developed a double standard of being easy breezy with vaccinated people who mask and social distance; and maintaining a wide arc around those who don’t. Nothing is clear.

When I am around people who are Covid careful, I tighten up. The opposite is also true. In the past six months our family has both traveled to grandparents and accepted grandparents as visitors. Multiple times, my boundaries ended up compromised by the way other people moved through the world, and I felt stupid for having made the choices that got me there. But it was wonderful to see family, and I can’t say I wouldn’t do it again. It depends how long this drags on.

My best hope for Covid conversations is to find a shared future vision; even if we agree on nothing about how to get there. It’s hard to talk about Covid because conflicting in conversation seals the loss of community in a way that not talking leaves sort of open or unresolved. Not talking feels like it holds possibility; but the only real possibility is to first speak and let everything get a lot worse so that eventually we can hope for better.