Monday, February 28, 2011

Something Has to Give

Something has got to give, I thought at midnight when Twila’s hard head thunked me in the back just as Jada’s strong legs flexed several times into the soft pit of my stomach. When Ryan goes out of town for a night, I usually sleep in our big king bed with both girls. I have long believed that this actually helps me get more sleep than sleeping in separate beds and having to run in and out multiple times a night to comfort, soothe, and cart to the bathroom. But last night tested that theory rigorously.

Jada has RSV right now, along with half of the toddlers in Minnesota. So these last two weeks have thrown us back down the hill of night weaning into the pit of constant night nursing. My breasts are sore and I am beginning to feel resentful. As the cough wanes in severity, my reasonable, adult mind tells me that Jada could nurse less at night; Jada’s stubborn toddler brain tells her she should scream bloody murder if she wakes up and a breast is not immediately placed within her reach.

I told myself it was their illnesses that were making them so restless last night. Twila was diagnosed three days ago with a severe ear infection. So our season of constant viruses continues. On Friday Twila was ducking her right ear to her shoulder, whimpering that it really hurt. I could tell from the look on her washed-out pale face that she was not exaggerating. We packed up and got in the car to go to the doctor.

Twila, being a little afraid of the doctor these days and being the expert negotiator that she is, negotiated lunch at Lean Chin’s (her favorite restaurant) on our way—not after the appointment, she made very clear to me.

Even though Jada had a severe chest cough, I didn’t plan to have her seen since it was no doubt a virus that they could do nothing about. As we finished our lunch at Lean Chin’s, I began the time-consuming process of bundling the girls against the five degree whipping wind waiting for us outside. I stood Jada up on my chair to get her jacket buttoned just as the friend Twila had made during lunch went running past. Without hesitation, Twila leapt up and ran after him. In the split second it took me to reach out to restrain her, Jada tipped off her chair and hit the tile floor with a dull thud that I knew was her head.

She screamed.

I paced with her for a few moments, just long enough to get her reasonably calm, calm enough to jacket and mitten Twila and then I scurried the girls out the door. We battled against the wind-chill for ten freezing yards and finally were at the car. I set Jada in her car seat and before I even had the buckle latched, she was asleep.

It’s because she’s been sick I told myself, it’s because she hasn’t been sleeping well—right?

When we pulled up to the doctor’s office a few minutes later, I had Twila lock me out of the car and ran in to talk to a nurse. I explained the situation.

“And the one who hit her head is the one who’s sleeping?” The nurse asked leveling a skeptical gaze over the counter. Suddenly I felt quite naive by hoping I could let Jada finish her nap in the car before I brought them in.

Four hours later, we were picking up a prescription for Twila’s ear infection and traveling home in late Friday afternoon rush hour traffic with the assurance that Jada did not have a concussion. After waiting hours for back to back walk-in appointments, the girls were exhausted. Having nothing on the calendar that night, we came home and collapsed. I asked Ryan to pick up pizza. He came home with a pizza, a bottle of wine and a movie.

When the kids were finally (if temporarily) asleep, we fell on the couch and didn’t move, didn’t talk, we didn’t even watch our movie. We just listed to the silence, the blessed silence of the evening. My ears rang in the absence of the constant noise of children, music, washing machine and dishwasher cycles, ringing phones and talking toys. We sat and drank our wine.

“I have to believe this is the most intense phase of parenting,” I finally said hoping to speak that truth into existence.

That night when we went to bed, not long after collapsing on the couch, we had a restless night. But it was nothing compared to last night. It has proven typical that when I most need a good night’s rest, I don’t get it. But last night just felt like some kind of silly joke.

Desperate for sleep, I climbed into the big bed at 9:15. With a dim lamp glowing, I read my book for a while, listening to the peaceful sounds of children sleeping. At 9:45 I turned the lamp off and rolled over. At 9:55, Jada woke up will a scream that raised the hair on the back of my neck. I patted her back, my eyes wide and my pulse pounding until she fell asleep.

I took a deep breath, tried to slow my rapid heartbeat, and finally, slowly lay back down. Just as my eyes fully closed and my mind began to drift into the unconscious of a light dream state, another holler yanked my mind back out of the soothing comfort of rest. Jada was screaming and kicking her legs in a sleeping version of her protests to being dressed.

I got close to her ear and shushed her in a long gentle but loud ssssssssh. It was enough to soothe her back to sleep.

Less than an hour later when she woke up with a scream again, shushing and patting didn’t work. Exhausted and starting to feel a little irritated, I rolled her onto my chest and nursed her. Once again, she fell asleep.

Thirty minutes later, it was 11:01 and Jada was screaming like she had put her hand on something hot. My eyes were foggy and my patience was quickly waning. I couldn’t understand why she just wouldn’t sleep. She was clearly so tired. Her sleep had been so bad for the last several nights and her naps almost non-existent. She needed this sleep. Why wouldn’t she just sleep? I wondered angrily.

I got out of bed and paced the halls. Soon her cries subsided and her head got heavy on my shoulder. Just then I heard the soft patting of Twila’s little bare feet coming down the hall.

“Mom, what’s going on?” She asked, her face crumpled in sleepy confusion.

“Just get back in bed, I’ll be right there,” I whispered as quietly and calmly as I could. But the exchange was enough to wake Jada again who seemed to think since Twila was awake, it was time to play. He sleepy grins though delighting to Twila failed to amuse me.

Reluctantly and with less than a heart full of love, I nursed Jada to sleep…again. After a bit of thrashing and fussing, Twila was asleep again too. I dared to believe that maybe this was it. That now I would crash into the deep restful sleep that I so desperately needed.

It only took two or maybe three more hours of thrashing and fussing, screaming and crying, soothing and re-soothing to fall into that kind of sleep. Time at night seems to move differently than day time hours do. They are halting and unpredictable, too slow and too fast all at once. And when I finally was in that deep sleep, I and the girls stayed there for about four hours.

The sun was just lighting up the horizon when Jada and Twila caught each other’s wakeful eyes and somehow that restless sleep was enough for them to hit the ground running, ready to play, laugh, devise and scheme.

My cheek felt like it was super-glued to the pillow. My head might have weighed five hundred pounds. My eyes seemed swollen almost completely shut. I couldn’t be sure if I was exhausted or coming down with something.

Though outwardly I knew I needed to get up, to start making food to feed the children, to change Jada’s diaper and help Twila get socks on and get warmer clothes on Jada, I could not inwardly summon the will to get to my feet. When a mom is this tired, she starts looking for someone, or something to blame. Was it the garlic chicken broth I gave Jada last night I wondered, she has been very sensitive to garlic. Is it her nursing addiction that keeps her sleeping so lightly? Would it be better if they were sleeping in their own room or would I just be sentencing myself to making multiple trips in there each night? I’ve never been one to let my children cry it out. Though this second time around I have gotten more astute about the difference between a fuss and a cry, I find it goes against my mothering grain to not respond when my baby is really crying.

So I am at that oh-so-common place that mothers find themselves, thinking: would it be better to make a change or stay the course? There is no real way to know if making changes will help or hurt until you try. Consistency is important but when you are sleep-deprived and resentful, a mother can find herself realizing that something does indeed have to give.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Going Along

Things are getting busier the older Twila gets. It’s not that she’s involved in many out-of-home activities. Aside from preschool and a once-a-week music class, our time is our own. But we are even still in a new phase of energy and activity because Twila is growing in independence and wanting more and more to do by herself; to make decisions independently and to differentiate herself from me. And it’s a mixed blessing.

On the one hand Twila is getting very helpful around the house, eager to try cooking and folding laundry, cleaning mirrors, hammering nails to hang pictures, shoveling the walkway, picking out her clothes and dressing, all by herself. The likelihood of a task getting done when she is assigned one is getting greater and greater. On the other hand, it is harder to monitor her safety and the safety of Jada since in a single unsupervised moment, she might be found climbing high on a step ladder, Ryan’s new hammer in hand, swaying precariously above her curious sister. So I have had to step-up my attention, dialing up my watchful gaze, and in that way things have gotten busier.

The laundry was facing me when I opened the laundry chute this morning; literally looking out from the space that is supposed to be a chute. But the chute only acts as a functional chute when there is room for the clothing to fall down the shaft of the chute. If, in fact, there is so much laundry that it is packed into the chute, jammed into a giant, dense column of laundry, one cannot chute old, dirty clothing, one has to stare it in the face with hands full of more dirty laundry having no place to chute it.

So I started the washing machine.

I have learned from repeated experience that when the laundry chute is that full, it takes exactly two giant, or three reasonably sized loads to wash all those clothes. Also from experience I know that it takes the better part of a week to get all that laundry folded and put away. I have also learned from recent experience that Twila’s eagerness to help fold can be in fact helpful but can also result in losing certain articles of clothing for months in various wrong drawers and crevices of her messy room.

The mess in Twila and Jada’s room seems to spill out into the rest of the house like creeping ivy. This is one area of the house Twila seems wholly uninterested in helping clean. She is seemingly unable to make a single stack of books from the massive pile on her floor. Somehow this, and not the many more complicated tasks she begs to undertake, is out of her skill set. But I’ve decided that her interest in helping and taking the initiative in projects is a positive thing even if her help doesn’t always get us to the destination I see as the most important.

I took an impromptu road trip with my daughters last week and had no destination at all in mind. We set out to go to the gym at eight forty five in the morning and five minutes into our ten minute drive Jada fell deeply asleep. I have never been one to wake a sleeping child. I would sooner lower the shades in the face of an alien invasion than wake a sleeping baby to run.

So we drove.

We drove north on a wide busy road that turned, before too long, into a small, quiet road that channeled an ever-dwindling stream of traffic further and further away from civilization. Before I knew it, we were driving past trees instead of buildings, restaurants and gas stations. The trees turned into forests as the northern suburbs gave way to Northern Minnesota. The trees opened sporadically to showcase wide expanses of marsh, and the occasional frozen lake. Stubborn geese and black birds took flight from the cold, barren surfaces, circling the chilly skies in search of stray mice and bugs.

Watching those black birds as I drove still further north, my daughters quietly resting in the back seat, I thought of an afternoon much warmer than this, some five years back. I was walking the streets of south Minneapolis when I was pregnant with Twila. I spent much of that pregnancy thinking about my birthdaughter Nicole and wondering if it was possible to love another child as much as I loved her.

As I walked down the alley, the sun just setting on a warm June evening, a huge blackbird suddenly took flight from the backyard to my right, a strange high pitched squeaking coming from it as it flapped. It flew straight in front of me and I could see, just feet over my head the source of the squeaking. The black bird had a tiny, baby rabbit clutched in its talons.

I was stunned, hardly believing what I was witnessing right before my eyes. I looked to the right where the bird had just flown from and there in its wake, a mother rabbit was bounding after it. It reached the fence and stopped, looking after the bird and the bunny, helplessly. It was uncharacteristically unaware of my presence and didn’t try to hide, run, or hold still as a statue under my gaze. It panted, staring wild eyed after the bird.

I stood looking from the mother rabbit to the black bird, winging off, high into the sky. I felt sick as I stood, as helplessly as the mother, watching her young stolen away. I clutched my pregnant belly, feeling unusually protective of my unborn baby.

It’s a terribly helpless feeling to have children. Loving your children is a kind of love that overtakes your entire system. It overrides your sense of ration and logic. This love replaces good sense and self preservation with wild, selfless passion. Mother animals throughout all of creation would sacrifice their own lives to protect their children.

It’s terrible to know that no matter how hard you try to protect your children, there are certain threats out of the realm of your control. As much as we want to we cannot be everywhere at once. We cannot look after our children every minute their entire lives.

No matter how much I watch and teach and oversee, I know these days of having my daughters resting safely in the backseat of my car are finite. I realized it as I drove, watching the sun rise higher into the eastern sky and I was overwhelmed with gratitude for this time when my biggest challenge is keeping the house or the car quiet enough for Jada as she naps, or trying to convince Twila that nine thirty in the morning is too early for macaroni and cheese with hotdogs.

Twila is learning how to play Old Maid, Crazy Eights, and Chess and how to make mixed media works of art and I am grateful for that too. Jada is starting to bat away Sippy Cups, insisting on drinking ice water out of open glasses. I am simultaneously in love with the new independence and abilities our daughters gain as they grow, and sentimental about how quickly the years of youth, innocence and dependence pass by.

So we go along, playing games and making art, reading new books and getting to know each other better and better; trying to be patient with each other, trying to create peace in our home as we all grow and change and learn new abilities. And I try to appreciate the ability I have to protect them almost entirely now. And I try not to worry too much about the future; about a time when I will have to trust them to recall the lessons we taught them; a time when they will have to rely on their own ability to protect themselves.

Monday, February 14, 2011

From Which True Happiness and Joy Springs

I think the difficulty of being unhappy in America is that Americans don’t expect to be unhappy. We have more opportunity, more resources, more money, more products at our disposal than much of the world and we expect, I think, for all that we have to equal joy. But it doesn’t always.

Marketing firms spend and make billions of dollars selling the notion that we should be happy, that if we have the right stuff we will be happy. So if we get all that stuff and we’re still not happy, we feel like something is seriously wrong with us. And so normal sadness turns into clinical depression. So marketing firms suggest if you can’t find a way to be happy with the stuff we’re selling, will sell you the right drug instead.

I’m not sure why these thoughts are on my mind this week. Maybe it’s because its Valentine’s Day and I can’t help feeling cynical because advertisers and marketing wizards have high jacked February 14th and turned it into an excuse for restaurants to trim their menus and jack up their prices. Or maybe it’s that being a mom seems to have a strikingly similar paradigm to this American expectation of being happy.

Since I’ve been a mom I’ve been struggling with this thought pattern: As a stay at home mom, I should be happy—all the time, unequivocally.

Whenever I tell someone that I stay at home with my kids, the response is very frequently something like: “Wow, you are so lucky,” or “I wish I could be at home with my kids,” or “Do you just love it?”

I know these words are polite and kind and that is probably why people say them; to be supportive. Women who chose for any number of reasons to go back to work after their kids are born might be thinking but wouldn’t say, “Wow, that sounds so boring, how do you cope?” or “You wouldn’t catch me wasting my day like that—yikes,” or “SUCKER!”

But they probably aren’t. I think women make different choices for their families based on many factors. But there does seem to be a widely accepted view that it is good to stay home with your kids, that it is loving and self-sacrificial. But there is also a view that staying at home is the greatest gift imaginable not just for the kids, but for the mom. And it’s with this belief that so many moms wrestle.

Isn’t this supposed to be the best time in my life? We-stay-at-home moms ask ourselves. I can do whatever I want: take the kids to the park, the beach, the library. We can sleep in and take naps, have lunch together, play, sing on the carpet, do crafts.

But the fact is, you can’t sleep in—more often you’re up before the sun. And as any mother can attest, napping with more than one child in the house or even with one active infant is as attainable as the Fountain of Youth. Often we’re tired and cranky, short tempered with our kids, edgy with our partners. And we don’t want to sit on the carpet and play dollhouse. And because there is often no break from this constant face-time with and requests from our offspring, we don’t appreciate all the time we have together as we feel we ought to.

And because stay-at-home-moms are mainly (or entirely) focused on their children and matters of the home, it is that avenue that makes or breaks our self-worth. If parenting is not going well, if our kids aren’t sleeping or our toddler is a screamer and a fusser or if our preschooler is lying or hitting a lot, or if we just can’t clean as fast as our kids can make messes and our lovely homes look like daycare centers at the end of the day, we feel like we’re not doing a good enough job. What’s more, we feel like we should be able to do a good job because it’s all we’re doing. We don’t have the luxury of balance. We don’t have work projects to spread our efforts over. All our eggs are in the basket that is raising our kids.

And because raising our kids is supposed to be this incredible gift, if we’re not thoroughly delighted by it each and every day, we feel like we’re ungrateful or we’re not appreciating the gift of time with our children. And it’s the shame about being unhappy, not the unhappiness itself that is so toxic.

We expect to be happy and those around us expect us to be happy too. What stay-at-home mom has not heard from her well-meaning husband after complaining about a particularly difficult day, “Well, this is what you want, isn’t it?”

And generally it is what we want. For some of us, maybe it’s what we always wanted. And that’s why there are layers upon layers of disappointment with not always loving it. We are disappointed with mothering being at times difficult, at other times, downright crazy-making, we are disappointed in our capabilities sometimes, and mostly we are disappointed with ourselves for not being able to enjoy every minute of sock-finding, diaper-changing, spit up-cleaning, bottom-wiping, candy-negotiating, nap-fighting, car-piling, TV-begging, boredom-battling, errand-running, mothering bliss.

And it’s those layers of disappointment that compound to make us feel not only sad sometimes, but also surprised and disappointed by our sadness. It’s the expectation of happiness that makes us unable to cope with sadness. Who isn’t sad sometimes? That’s the lesson I’m trying to teach my girls. Everyone is sad sometimes; it’s normal and healthy to feel sad. Sometimes sadness is hormonal, sometimes it’s from being tired, sometimes it’s caused by actual events in our life. But it’s usually normal. That’s the lesson that I need to learn too.

Even though I’m staying at home with my kids and it is what I want, and it is wonderful, sometimes it’s also really hard and really frustrating and there are even aspects of it that are disappointing. Just like any job, I guess.

But in this job, my coworkers are the children I held in infancy and rocked and nursed and comforted. They are also the coworkers who don’t go home at the end of the day, or even the end of the week. They are the coworkers who don’t always appreciate you but they come home with you each night and eat the food you prepare and complain unabashedly when they don’t like the food. They pick their noses at the table and have to be begged to wash their hands and clear their plates. These coworkers ever spend the night each and every night and they don’t mind screaming out at three am if their covers have slipped on the floor or their pajamas are too hot.

So while staying at home with our kids is a gift and a joy and in some ways, a luxury, it is also one of the most underappreciated and poorly paid jobs one can take on. And when it is rewarding, it’s not through plaques or certificates or bonuses (or anything concrete) it’s through a smile, a hug, or a small and brutally honest coworker telling you she loves you and that you’re the best and most beautiful mom she’s ever met.

And though those rewards can’t be hung on a wall or bragged about on a future resume, they are better than any bouquet of balloons, Hallmark card or basket of flowers. It is these words, these rewards alone get us mothers past those unavoidable sad and disappointing days. And it is these rare but beautiful moments of honesty from which true happiness and joy springs.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Day to Stay Inside

It is cold out: negative ten air temperature in Minnesota. There is nothing to do but stay inside, drink coffee and play dress up.

It’s been a tough month for our family. I am trying to get into the spirit of having sick days, and see the silver lining to all this time the girls and I are spending in doors, on the couch, reading books and watching movies. But the truth is, it’s been tough. It would be an understatement to say we’ve been sick for the last month. In fact, ever since Thanksgiving week when Ryan and I both got the stomach flu the day we were due to have our rental property inspected, our family has gone from one nasty virus to the next. Some weeks it seems Twila is only healthy long enough to go back to school and catch another bug.

The latest in our long saga of illness includes Twila being cultured for Strep twice and Jada throwing up for four days straight before shifting to a rather profound case of diarrhea. We thought she was done throwing up when we made the choice to bring her with us to Twila’s doctor’s appointment. She seemed her usual smiley self through the whole visit but was once again fussing and wining when we queued in the ordering line of a fast food burger joint.

Ryan had just passed her off to me so he could get his wallet out when the man behind me started pointing and making some repetitive unintelligible noise that sounded like: “Oh, uh, oh, oh, um…”

I looked behind me to see that Jada had vomited over my shoulder, down my back and all over the floor behind me. Ryan was like a deer in headlights as he tried to decide whether he should finish ordering our lunch or run.

“Can I have the keys? Hand me the keys please, may I have the keys NOW please?” I repeated through gritted teeth. Finally my requests reached the message center in Ryan’s brain and he retrieved the keys and handed them to me. I beat it out the door and paced by the car deciding that a little fresh air might be better for both of us.

Ryan must still have been in shock when he poked his head out of the door and asked if we were eating there or if we should take our food to go.

A kindly manager assured Ryan and Twila that he would take care of the mess. I hope that we didn’t lose them too much business that day because we were at the very front of the line at the peak of the lunch rush. It’s the kind of thing I would have complained about if I was behind such a nasty display. I would tell my friends for months to come and probably never go back that restaurant. As it is I will probably never go back to that restaurant either, out of shame and guilt.

It is the ever-unanswerable question that mothers face: do we stay home or go out? When flu season is upon us, it seems every day could be justified as a sick day. Is there a day that doesn’t begin with coughing and sneezing and the complaint of a sore throat? Not in our house this winter. It has been a season of illness and exhaustion.

I cling to those moments of fun, of humor, of energy, and joy because they are sparse, sparse, sparse, this winter. On Super Bowl Sunday we had dinner at a friend’s house while Twila and Jada ran around with three other kids. Everyone felt good (amazingly) and the kids were having a blast. I held this scene in my heart (paying more attention to the group of children than to the football game) because it was the first time I had really seen Jada get into a group and really play. She screeched with the best of them and ran back and forth with the herd. It was beautiful.

I drove the girls home at half time, hoping they would both fall soundly asleep in their cozy jammies that I thought to bring and change them in to, all nestled up with blankets in their car seats. They didn’t. But after quick tooth brushing, we climbed into the big queen guest bed all together and put on the little turtle night light that projects colorful stars all over the ceiling. And with both girls lying on my chest, I sang songs from our music class.

For a while they tossed and turned and poked each other in the face and cracked up which was charming even though it did not advance the “sleep ball.” Then without warning, in mid thrash and flip, they were both asleep, small heads resting on either side of my chin, breath coming in slow, deep sighs, their combined weight pinning me to the bed.

I slithered out from underneath their heavy, sleeping bodies and I turned around to crouch on my heels and watch them sleep for a while. They looked absolutely peaceful and darling, as if neither one was capable of a scream, a whine or a peep.

The sight of my children sleeping is perhaps more precious to me right now because of how disturbed our sleep has been by sickness the last month. From Twila throwing up all night with Ryan to Jada throwing up all night with me to me throwing up all night to Twila being up with the chills of a high fever to Ryan being up with fever chills and body aches. Each night as the sun goes down it is anyone’s guess if we will make it through the night sleeping, or if we will even get any rest at all.

So I just sat enjoying the absolute peace of their sleep for a long time. Then I turned off the turtle star lamp, tucked their blankets around them and crept out.

As the days have continued to be hectic and intense with short tempers and stir-crazy kids screeching for assistance and attention, I have continued to hold that scene in my mind. Even now as the floor is covered with scattered dry cereal, stuffed animals, books and puzzle pieces from a morning’s worth of indoor entertainment, I can channel that fleeting sense of total calm from watching my children sleep soundly.

And now it’s another freezing day on the arctic tundra of Minnesota. We hope for a reprieve from the rash of viruses so we can go to an indoor playground or swimming pool; so I can go back to the gym and so Twila doesn’t have to miss anymore school. And we hope for spring so we can go back outside, play in the dirt and stick our toes in the lake, smell the fresh scent of grass and flowers and leaves and mud. But its two months away no matter how you slice it. Maybe today we’ll make Oobleck (from Dr Seuss’s classic) and watch the snowmobiles fly across the frozen lake, waiting for the temperature to come above zero.