It was on this normal day, as I chased each one around with food and articles of sensible clothing negotiating complaints and shrill cries of indignation that things began to unravel. As is so often the case in motherhood, I started out with a wellspring of patience, loving language and a willingness to explain, talk, negotiate and persuade. But before nine o’ clock, my patience was running thin.
I opened my computer to check email which I hadn’t done since last week. Just as my computer booted up, I remembered that the last time I had logged on, I had worked for five or ten minutes when Jada’s shrieks of frustration got the better of me and I finally allowed her to slam happily on the keys of my computer while it was safely ( I thought) on the log-in screen. Soon however she had realigned my entire interface to look like something out of a cosmic bowling alley. Every screen was black with white text, bright primary colors highlighted Google’s home page, my Gmail account and any Word document I opened.
So on this morning, I struggled to figure out what she had done and how to undo it. It was around the time that my irritation with my computer was turning to tearful exasperation that Twila announced from the family room that Jada was done going poop. I thought this was an odd announcement since I had already changed and disposed of her dirty diaper. The reality of the situation settled on me like the chilling realization that there is someone in the room you didn’t realize was there.
There Jada stood at the coffee table, wearing a clean shirt, shoes, socks and no pants, no diaper. And Twila was right, she was now done going poop. The evidence of this was all over her ankles, the open book she stood over, the family room rug and the coffee table. There was a small trail leading from the place at the couch where I had distractedly left her crawling away from her clean diaper, to answer the phone. It was from this call that I had remembered an email I needed to return. And so it goes for the life of a mom.
Things went downhill from there. The three of us girls are all sick with a horrible, mucusy cough that has been the scourge of Minnesota this past month. I don’t know a soul who has been safe from this nasty virus. Jada was the first in our family to be at its mercy and was a fussy, tired mess over the holiday weekend. We cleaned and wrapped and cooked as best we could for the back to back holiday dinners we were hosting for Ryan’s family and then mine, while carrying around our feverish, coughing infant.
On Christmas Eve night, I felt a tickle in my throat, a weight in my chest and by Christmas morning I was not only sleep deprived but was undeniably sick. Monday morning as Ryan left for work, I was busy setting my expectations nice and low for the day.
That too I did well for a while. I am able to grant myself a certain amount of clemency from the many chores that stare at me from the counter tops, the laundry baskets, the dark corners of the bathroom, I can look away from their vacant staring eyes for so long and so I did, that morning, as best I could.
I made us all bagel sandwiches, using my happy voice to talk to Jada who fussed intermittently at me from the floor. I made coffee and took a big mug into Twila’s room where I sat on the floor and let Jada climb across my lap and was a sounding board for all Twila’s creative ideas. Then we all climbed onto the couch in her room and read story after story. This, I believe is the greatest gift I give to Twila: saying yes to playing in her room and reading “just one more” chapter. Sure she loved opening presents on Christmas morning, but not one gift compared to my agreeing to “play.”
She makes this abundantly clear to me each morning we wake up together. I regret how rarely I say yes, just yes with no equivocations, no strings attached.
But sooner or later the guilt creeps in, the fake guilt or something really corrosive masquerading as guilt because the choice that will make me feel truly guilty for years into my retirement is the choice to walk out of Twila’s room. But something that feels like guilt eventually pulls me out. I don’t know what it is, its this feeling that I should be doing something “productive” as if spending time with my daughters isn’t that. But its this panic or anxiety, it’s the mental to-do list that starts scrolling through my mind. What will happen if I don’t put the dishes in the dish washer? What if the laundry doesn’t get done? What if the tenants don’t get the snow blower in time? What if I don’t send a nice email apology to our angry tenant who can’t get out of the driveway because the snow plows blocked her in?
These thoughts begin to tick away and suddenly I find myself escaping the warmth of the pillow fort in Twila’s room, the true joy I find sitting on the floor amongst the stuffed animals and books, drinking coffee and playing. I find myself escaping to more “important” avenues for my time. And I know that it won’t be what I escaped to do but the beautiful scenes I escaped that I remember fondly when I’m old, when my children are old. Yet somehow I cannot bring myself to fully let go of those things I need to check off my to-do list.
But the more I accomplished the more stressful the day got and the worse we all felt. And I wondered, is any of it worth it? But simultaneously I thought, can I reasonably choose to not do any of these have-to’s? The answer to both questions was no.
I thought, as I lay in bed with Twila last night, about Christmas Eve: how late she was up, eating cake and opening presents, playing and joyously anticipating Santa’s arrival. I thought of how the house was finally quiet when the guests were all driving home, when Jada fell, fitfully asleep in my front carrier and Twila insisted we write a letter to Santa. We sat down by the fire, now dwindled down to embers and popping remnants of wood, with crayons and paper. She drew pictures of reindeer with very human looking heads and I wrote the words she dictated to me.
Then she poured no less than twenty cookies on the coffee table before I could stop her and arranged them into a special design. Then suddenly she ran to the giant picture window in our living room, behind our tall Christmas tree and looked out over the damp, black sky. There in the distance, she insisted, she could see Rudolph’s nose.
“We better get to sleep before he gets here,” I said.
But she insisted we go outside and sing jingle bells to Santa so he would hear us in the distance and as I opened my mouth the say no, to say are you crazy, its nine thirty at night and its ten degrees outside and you’re in a Tinker Bell nighty, I caught myself and wondered, what do I want Twila to remember when she is old? So we opened that back porch door and shouted at the cold, black sky one verse of jingle bells then slammed the door on the frigged night air.
And just as on Christmas Eve, last night Twila was asleep almost the moment her head touched the pillow. But I didn’t get out of bed right away. I lay for a long time next to her listening to the steady rise and fall of her breathing, wondering at how all that mobile, cascading energy could be so motionless. How that perpetually talking and asking mouth could be so peacefully still.
Before I left her room last night I brushed her long hair out of her eyes and rested my hand on her arm. I kissed her temple, right next to her eye and breathed in the scent of her hair. I missed her childishness already. I vowed to remember that moment both when I am eighty nine years old and tomorrow when Jada is shrieking and Twila is asking for my time. And I will give it.