Friday, August 19, 2016

When your youngest goes to school

Eight and a half years ago I brought a little life into my home.  My home.  Where I lived and ate and watched TV without interruption.  Where I could make a meal or finish a load of laundry with relative ease.  Where I could schedule 30 minutes to vacuum the floors and actually accomplish this task.  Where my husband and I talked and laughed and had friends over to talk and laugh some more.

I stared at the empty crib for months before he was born, trying to picture what it would feel like with his tiny body lying in there.  It felt good.  Right.  Peaceful.

Instead he came in like a hurricane.  I was rocked to the core from his birth and I was unimaginably exhausted from the sleepless nights and I was scared all the time.  I was scared of SIDS, I was scared someone would drop him, or knock his little head into a wall, I was scared every time he was hungry because I knew, for that first week at least, his nourishment was my pain, when the very thing that quieted him made me cry out in agony.

This baby who I had longed for felt more like an invader in my home.  Only one who I loved like crazy, one who I longed to protect more than I'd wanted anything in my whole life.

And then one morning, not long after his birth, my husband woke up, put on his shirt and tie, hopped in his car and drove off to work (I'm fairly certain there was a heal-kick in there somewhere, but one can't be sure).  And just as suddenly I became a stay-at-home mom.  His life resumed as normal, mine changed forever.

I didn't have any local mom friends and I was too tired to try to make them, so Joel finished out the school year and I counted down the minutes each day until he came home.  Aiden was notorious for his 15-minute naps and every time I heard him stir my skin would crawl.  I was so worried about doing everything right, no car naps, no naps in my arms, no naps in the swing, that I drove myself crazy.  A few times I allowed myself to drive through Starbucks and sit in a parking lot reading magazines while Aiden slept in the back.  To this day I can remember reveling in that feeling of normalcy, getting lost in my coffee and the pages of Real Simple and forgetting, however momentarily, about the immense responsibility in my back seat.

I adjusted, of course.  I joined a mom's group and met one of my best friends.  I learned to enjoy the little life in my home and I stopped worrying so, so much.  Soon Aiden was moving.  Rolling and then crawling.  Walking and then running, and before I knew it we'd entered the toddler stage with it's own unique set of challenges.  And just about the same time baby number two came along.  Our once quiet and peaceful life was non-stop.  I struggled to cook dinner or clean up the house, and so my main responsibility became keeping the children alive and myself sane for eight hours every day, until Joel walked in the door and I could finally share the responsibility and joy of these tiny creatures with him.

Somewhere in those eight and a half years we moved to Budapest and we had a third child and our life was shaken, once again.  But always, always my days revolved around one or more little humans, running and playing and constantly needing things.  I've resented it at times and I've loved it at times, but I've never, not once regretted it.

Next week life as I've known it changes.  My littlest heads off to school.  And I head back home.  Alone.  For the first time in nearly nine years.  Almost a decade.

I think I should be excited because I've literally daydreamed about this moment for some time now.  I've pictured myself coming home to a quiet house and finishing a load of laundry without someone crying on the stairs because I left him for 30 seconds.  I've imagined myself having the time to write and to learn how to sew and to clean out the attic where things have gone to disappear for the past five years.

But having a kid at home is all I know now.  I'm used to rearranging my life around the needs of a little person.  I'm used to cooking with one on my leg, or in my arms.  I'm used to the natural connection with other stay-at-home moms and dads, to trying our best to gulp down a cup of coffee while our kids run circles around us and fight over toys that no one cared about a second ago.

I'm not used to time.  Or freedom.  I'm not used to doing what I want, when I want.  And while the prospect is, admittedly, a bit exciting, it's also terrifying.

The first week Aiden went to school was almost unbearably hard for me.  Even with Finn at home I missed him all the time.  Nothing felt right without him.  But I did have Finn to distract me, and you can't wallow for long when you're running after a toddler all day.  And later, when Finn went to school, I had Benjamin to comfort me with his crazy antics.

Now I'm facing the reality that, at least for now, this time in my life is over.  It's sadder than I thought it was going to be.  And also more exciting.  I'm trying to stay grounded, though, and not let my emotions get ahead of me.  One day at a time.

Since Aiden was born I put all (okay, let's say most) of my focus into my kids.  Feeding, cleaning, playing, loving (and, you know, losing it from time to time).  But everything else has been in maintenance mode.  The house.  Writing.  Taking care of myself.  I do just enough to not fall irreparably behind, but it's been years since I've had the opportunity to make progress in anything apart from my children (and even that is questionable).

I know my role as Mom will continue.  And it's still my most important one.  But for the first time, it's not my only one.  So I'm excited to move forward.  With what?  I'm not quite sure.

But I'll finally have the time to find out.

And let us not forget the beauty of a seven-hour day completely void of the words, "I'm hungry."  If you need me I'll be the one eating rolled up lunch meat from the fridge, chasing it down with a HOT cup of coffee, and shamelessly unwrapping candy, right out in the light of day.

See you on the other side!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Good enough

I make dinners.  Lunches.  Breakfasts.  I search for socks and swim trunks and homework folders.  I wipe little bums and clean soiled sheets.  The fibers of my shirt hold tears and snot and marker stains.  My hair has been pulled and torn from its roots by little hands searching for comfort.  My arms ache from holding children well past holding age and most days my body is too tired to function past bed time.

When I think there's absolutely nothing left to give, someone wants something else.  And I give it.  When I think I can't possibly make one more dinner, someone's hungry.  And I make it.  When I think I can't walk another step, I pick up my toddler and I walk 50 more.  When I think I can't function without just a little more sleep, I get up.  And I do.

I hold little hands and kiss little faces and wipe little tears.  I laugh and I sing and I dance.  I cry and I yell and I fall on the couch and proclaim "I just can't do it anymore."  And then I get up and I do.  I high five and chase and whisper to each of my children, secretly, "You're my best friend."

I tear up at assemblies and class presentations because I'm so proud.  I tear up when I see them playing by themselves, or watch them struggle to read because I'm so scared.  I tear up when someone understands because I'm so relieved.

I wander the hallway at night, between rooms, tucking little feet under covers, stroking messy hair, smiling.  Always smiling.  Even after the hardest days.  Smiling because I feel in this quiet moment, each night, what it means to be mom.

It's work, yes.  Hard work, even.  But it's holy work.

It's a joy, even when it's a burden.   It's a privilege, even when it's a hardship.  It's grace, even when it's brought me to my knees.  Especially when it's brought me to my knees.

I've spent years trying to explain to people what I do all day.  When Aiden was a baby I'd say things like I feed him and I change his diapers and I pick him up when he cries.  And I'm sure they were thinking, and then...  But somehow that was it.  It was exhausting and exhilarating and fulfilling and unbelievably lonely, but I couldn't explain why.  These days I say things like, I go to play groups and take walks, I grocery shop and do laundry.  And I'm sure people think, and then...  But somehow that's it.  It doesn't sound like much.  But it feels like so much.  It feels like everything.

It's mundane and draining and sweet and lovely.  And it can't be explained, not fully.  But not because it's boring or meaningless.  Because it's full of more meaning than even I can understand right now, from my spot directly in the middle of it.  Because sometimes the most sacred things can't be talked about.  Sometimes the most beautiful things just can't be explained.

This morning Finn was feeling down and so I pulled him in for a good hug, and when I glanced up at our reflection in the window, I noticed Finn's small, satisfied smile.  I noticed his closed eyes and his arms wrapped tightly around my waist.  And I thought, I did that.  I don't know if good enough exists, or if I'll ever feel like I've attained it, but I know that I'm good enough for him.  Even with all my flaws, I'm enough for these three gorgeous children.  My love changes them.

And maybe that's the fascinating thing about motherhood.  That it's a small, beautiful reflection of a love much greater than this.  That even though it's laced with imperfections, it's also a piece of heaven.  A sacred glimpse into something more.

It's snot and tears and dirt-crusted fingernails.  It's smiles and laughter and chocolate-covered faces.

It's good and it's hard and it's everything in between, but it's always, irrevocably, unconditionally covered in love.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Just another day in the life

Some days I feel like a failure.  I look back at the end of the day on all I didn't accomplish, all the times that sweet and loving gave way to harsh and impatient, all the moments I felt on the brink of insanity doing such simple tasks as getting out of the car, walking down a hallway, trying to hold a 2-minute conversation with an actual, real-life grown up, and I feel like a mess.  Like I'm doing everything wrong.

But today, as I rushed around the house like a mad-woman, and as I piled my family into the car and set off for school, late again, I started to realize the truth.  I'm not a mess.  I'm not a failure.  I'm a superhero.

I mean, there are people (ahem, Joel) who get up, take a shower by themselves, make one breakfast (for themselves), put on their own shoes and their own coats and walk out the the door!  Walk straight out the door.  Can you even imagine such a thing?  (I mean, sure, he wakes up at 5:00 to accomplish this feat and, you know, pour every ounce of energy into his job, but whatever.  I'm the superhero today.)

This morning I woke up to a toddler's face just inches from mine and a puddle of urine in my bed.  Once I got him changed and the sheets in the washing machine, I dressed, fed and played referee to three rambunctious young boys, one of whom is most definitely not a morning person, while simultaneously packing lunches, signing reading logs and showering.  You heard me right.  Somewhere in the middle of all that chaos, I actually showered.

I somehow safely ushered three kids from the parking lot to the classrooms, and with Benjamin under one arm and my bag on the other I made it back to the car in less than 30 minutes.  Every single conversation from the time I reach the school lobby ends in my toddler running straight into oncoming traffic and me sprinting across the parking lot to catch him.

In fact, much of my day contains these unreal moments of heroic strength and speed.  I mean, I don't want to brag, but I can run from the living room to the bathroom, where my super-sonic hearing has detected a toddler pulling up his underwear pre-wiping, in less than a second.  Olympic sprinters couldn't compete with a mom attempting to prevent poop-stained underwear.  

I can casually balance a large three-year-old on one hip while cooking, cleaning, drinking coffee, eating meals and using the toilet.  I can outrun a speeding balance bike.  Out-climb the swiftest monkey.  And outsmart the most clever and stubborn of all humans... the toddler.

Most days I kick myself for the moments I lose my patience.  But what about all of the many moments I don't?  What about the times where I scream silently in my head, paste on a fake old smile and answer, "What do you need, sweetheart?"  What about the hundreds of times a day Benjamin wants to "hold me" and instead of throwing myself on the ground in frustration I stretch out my arms and I hold him?  What about the countless hours I've spent preparing meals that were sneered at and cried over, and not once did I so much as throw a pea?

I field incoming requests from the second I wake up in the morning ("Mommy, I'm hungry... I need my swim stuff... I don't have any socks.") to the moment I lay down my head at night ("Mommy, I need a drink... I want tucked in... Something's bothering me.").   I respond to these requests quickly and efficiently and with only the necessary grumbling (particularly when they come before my coffee).

And at the end of the day I look at the three small humans who have leeched every bit of energy from me that day, and I think about how deeply and sincerely I love them.  After all that.  I don't look at their sleeping bodies and think, "Well crap, guess I have to deal with that tomorrow."  I think instead, "How could I possibly love them more?"

Weird, huh?

So I guess we're doing something right, tired mamas of the world.  Even on the days it feels like we're doing everything wrong.  I've heard people say that being a mom is the hardest job in the world.  I don't know about that, but I'll tell you this.  It is hard.  It is really, really hard, but we're doing it.  We're doing it with a good bit of coffee and a whole lot of grace, but we're doing it.

And that's the most heroic part of all.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

It's easy

To my Benji, on your third birthday,

Last night, after an hour of prepping dinner and finally getting it on the table, finally sitting down to eat, you slid off your chair, just a few inches from mine, and squirmed your way under my arm, onto my lap.  I was tired and hungry and your brothers would never have been allowed to do this.  But you're the third and the baby and, well, you're you.  So I let you sit there and attempted to eat around you.

At bedtime you wanted one more book and you spilled your milk down your shirt and you "didn't want to go night-night."  After all that, I knew that when you woke up you wouldn't want to go on the potty and you wouldn't want to get dressed and you wouldn't want to take brothers to school.

We met our friends for coffee this morning where you dumped a bottle of apple juice on your pants and sprinted repeatedly through the wide doorway.  And so I ran and dabbed and consoled between hurried sips of my cooling coffee.

If I attempt to vacuum, which at this point is highly necessary, and also highly unlikely, you'll follow close behind me.  You'll press the power button approximately every five seconds and I'll look at you sternly and say, "Benjamin, stop."  And you'll smile back and allow me another five seconds before you push it again.  Eventually I'll give up and hand it over, which will amuse you for about five seconds before you drop it and move on.  Until I start it again, that is.

You'll be "so hungwy" about every half hour or so, all day long, but you won't like any of the options presented you.  You'll be thirsty, but you won't accept a glass of water.  You'll run around in circles and look at me with panic in your eyes, but you won't just sit on the toilet and go.

And somewhere between the running and tantrums and general mischief, you'll meander to my side, lift your chubby little arms and say, "Mommy, I want to hold ya."  And so I'll pick you up and while I have you so close I'll kiss your soft, rosy cheek and I'll notice your plump, little lips and your long eyelashes and I'll cling to these bits of baby while I can, because I know they will fade too soon.  That they already are.

Later I'll hear you from behind the couch, talking to your toys.  I'll listen closely to your deep voice and the stories your create, a small peek into your increasingly complex little mind.

As I cook dinner I'll feel the warmth of your arms wrapped around my leg, and I'll remember that you find true joy in my presence, and for a second I'll stop being annoyed that I can't get anything done and soak up your unconditional adoration.  Your love that is both soft and fierce, both sweet and unrelenting.

But it won't really hit me until you're finally asleep.  Until your belly rises and falls in an easy pattern as you snuggle up to one of your hard-edged vehicles.  But then it will take my breath away.  The intensity of my frustrations will be crushed, smothered by the intensity of my love.  And your dad and I will look at each other as you snore on your pillow and say, "Well, he had a hard day."  And then we'll smile because it's both ridiculous and true, all at the same time.

It's not always easy with you.  In fact, it's mostly not easy.  It's not easy to get you dressed or out the door.  It's not easy to chase you through parking lots and manage your feisty temper.  It's not easy to feed you, or put you to bed.

But it's so incredibly easy to love you.  So easy.  It's as if I was made to do it.  It's as natural and thoughtless as breathing.

We'll get through these toddler years.  I just know we will.  But I imagine it won't be the last of the tough times.  I imagine it won't always be easy.

But even when the days are hard, the love never is.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


Sometimes I sit down at my computer with words and lines already written in my head.  Sometimes it's almost an entire outline, with transitions and all, and I need only to fill in the blanks.  And some days, days like today, I sit down with an ache, and not much more.  I sit down to write, blank, knowing only that I'm searching for a bit of relief and hoping to find it here.  This place where vague feelings tend to take on a life of their own.  Where confusion takes on order and my world makes a little more sense at the end of the page than it did at the beginning.

On our way home from church today I couldn't stop thinking about the mess ahead of me.  Last night's dishes were piled in the sink and overflowing onto the counter.  This morning's plates and cups and crumbs were scattered across the table and floor.  Half of a banana remained chopped and browning on the cutting board.  Pajamas were crumpled in the same spots they slipped over little feet and throw pillows were thrown everywhere.

I was in a mood today anyhow, and the disaster waiting for me at the end of an already stressful morning wasn't helping.  And so Joel took the kids to his classroom, where they love to color and play and experiment, and I went home to clean.

I never want to start cleaning.  It all looks so daunting and I feel overwhelmed just looking at the mess.  But then I turn on some soft music and I light a candle and I begin by picking up a few legos and placing them under the blue lid of our lego tub.  When I've clicked it shut I look up and notice that the pillows really aren't far from the couch, and so I grab them one-by-one and place each carefully in its designated position, where they will stay only until the boys get home.  But the colors all lined up in the right order make me happy and I feel like I can tackle the bright, plastic mess behind the couch.  And so I do.

I make my way like that from the far end of the living room to the kitchen sink, clearing and sweeping and wiping, one small task at a time.  After I've finished the dishes I grab the sponge and wipe clean the kitchen counter.  It's my favorite step.  The final transformation from filthy to sparkling clean.  Early on in our marriage Joel learned not to steal this joy from me.  Wash the dishes: Yes.  Wipe the counters: Definitely, definitely no.

I've been feeling a bit messy inside lately.  Like I can't quite get comfortable in my own skin.  I wake up sometimes in the middle of the night panicky, like I've forgotten something, but I don't know what.  And so I fix my kids' blankets and use the bathroom, since I'm up anyhow, and then I shove down any residual anxiety and go back to sleep.

During the day I tend to lay blame on the people around me.  Joel for working too much or my kids for not listening or anyone else who can occupy me with the question of what's wrong with them so as to never have to ask what's wrong with me?  Because even though I try not to look, when I do get a glance, I feel overwhelmed by the mess inside. And I can't imagine where to start.

My life feels like one giant distraction sometimes.  Kids are yelling and dinner needs cooked.  There are toys to clean up and I haven't seen the bottom of my laundry basket since last summer.  When I get a second to myself I'm scrolling through Facebook or turning on a mindless show before bed.  I can't even watch a commercial or go to the bathroom without finding some way to occupy my mind.  It's like I'm scared to be with myself.

But perhaps the first step is simply setting the mood.  Lighting a candle and turning on some soft music.  Going for a walk where I feel like I can breathe and there's nothing to distract me.  Where I can look around at God's creation and start from a place of knowing that I'm loved.

Then maybe I can begin to sort out what's inside, instead of ignoring it and shoving it down and pretending not to notice it until one normal afternoon it explodes and my husband's looking at me in shock asking, is something else going on, and I truly don't know how to answer.

At this point in life, any self-reflection must be intentional.  There's just no other way.  If I wait to have a moment, the moment will never come.  Someone will always needs me.  Something will always need done.  Just this week I was complaining to Joel that I can only stay on top of things.  If I want to go above and beyond, like deep cleaning the bathroom or matching our socks, then something else has got to give.  The downstairs will look as if a tornado's blown through or it will turn 5:00 before I realize I haven't even thought about dinner.

My whole life could be swept up in my kids and my house and all of the things needing done.  If I let it.  And so I'll try to not let it.  I'll try to walk away from the distractions every now and then and face what's inside.  To go for a walk or sit down and read or lock the door to the bathroom and steal one minute just to think.  And I'll remember that even the most overwhelming messes really aren't that scary when taken a few legos at a time.