Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Me versus the Laundry

Four days ago I stood before the laundry chute in the basement. I felt a brief moment of reluctance before I released the eyehook and watched the hatch swing open, rendering its load onto the floor in a great heap. It reminds me of those office supply commercials where the files keep shooting out of a closet until the unsuspecting intern is buried. Except that I fully expect to be buried now. It’s amazing how quickly the wet towels, dirty socks, stained shirts and muddy pants of two children accumulate.

When I fold our laundry (a project that takes about three days and two nights) I usually encounter four of Ryan’s white tee-shirts, four pairs of his boxers, several pairs of my workout socks and tee-shirts, occasionally a pair of Ryan’s or my jeans. And the rest of Mount Everest that stands in the center of our bed is little kids clothes and bath towels. Bath towels that were dumped in the chute after having been pulled into a full tub of water, used to wipe up spills in the kitchen and syrup tracked down the hall, bath towels that were left in a heap in the bedroom, bath towels that were inadvertently urinated on. A couple of years ago Ryan and I talked about getting rid of all of our old raggedy towels and getting one new matching set. Where would we be if we had done that?

After separating the clothes from the towels (a job that takes a full day after dozens of interruptions to help break up fights, find missing toy parts and doll clothes, feed hungry kids and answer the phone) I wash about two to three loads of each: towels and kid clothes. Kids go through clothes faster than I go through coffee after a sleepless night.

This morning as I walked down the hall to the kitchen, creeping quietly in the dark of predawn trying not to wake any of my sleeping family members, I opened the laundry chute to toss my pajama pants in. A full chute greeted my pants right at the top, spitting them back onto the floor like a basket ball bouncing off the backboard. Well that’s what four days does to our laundry chute.

I joke with my girlfriends that laundry washing and folding could be its own full time job. I wouldn’t even expect a full time maid to be able to keep up with it. Not with all the other things there are to do in a big house. Luckily I like to clean. Cleaning and organizing has been a favorite pastime since I was a little girl and discovered the satisfaction of bringing deeper and deeper organization to my own long and narrow walk-in closet. I soon converted it into a sitting room with a singular light bulb hanging from a clothes hook and a bean bag chair on which I sat to write my earliest short stories.

But like it or not, it’s one of those things I tend not to have time for these days. My birthdaughter’s family watched Twila and Jada the other day while I went to the dentist and I was comforted and pleased to see a healthy clutter around their house. They are going through major remodels and everything is in flux. Sandy managed to make a beautiful lunch for us in the midst of crowded counters and five circling children ranging in age from two to twelve. As we talked I thought back to the first time I came to their house, just after Nicole had gone home with them and how meticulously neat it was. Not a dust speck could be found. Children have a tendency to take their toll on living spaces. And frankly, as a mother with any sort of life, something’s gotta give.

If I want to keep writing novels and doing a half-way decent job maintaining a blog, the laundry chute’s going to be full and the counters may hold a little more clutter than they used to before children were piling things onto them. Of course, I have been known to wipe down counters and vacuum floors as a means to crushing through a writer’s block, which is a technique I did not learn from Dan Brown but, really, who has time for inversion therapy? My inversion therapy is rolling around on the carpet with my daughters.

Twila and I were doing the Jillian Michaels Shred yesterday morning. When Twila got tired she crawled under me as I was doing walking pushups and something about the angle of my face (and probably the strain thereon) cracked her up, which of course, enticed the two year old to come check out the show. Soon we were all on the floor laughing as Jillian Michaels pushed us to work harder.

The life of a mom will always encompass the search for balance. I have been delighted in these recent months to see that it is not going to be an unattainable goal forever. Balance actually can be achieved, which is something I flat out didn’t believe a year ago. Now that Jada is two, talking, sleeping, playing with her older sister, there is time during the day for things other than holding, feeding, entertaining and comforting. When she gets to the other side of potty training—when she starts preschool for goodness sake, I’m not even going to recognize my life. What will I do with my time? How many books I’ll publish; how frequent the blog posts will be then when there are uninterrupted hours to write.

We don’t find a perfect balance every day. And of course, just when the routine gets settled, someone pops another tooth through or spikes a fever or pees on the floor, or dumps icy water over her sister’s head in the bath, and I’m pulled away from whatever I'm doing, shaking my head and sighing. But more and more each day I see them collaborating; I see them maturing and figuring out that it is more fun to play than to fight, and I see myself growing more patient and calm each day and subsequently, more fun. We do more things together yet there is more time to myself too in some magical paradox of time. Maybe it’s just that the time we spend is so much more quality when everyone is happy that they demand less of it, feeling satisfied by what they get.

And I can’t help feel—even as I am delighted for my friends getting pregnant with their second and third children—happy that our family is passed babyhood. It is wonderful, delightful, mysterious and magical to fall in love with a tiny person who only just popped into existence. But it is also wonderful to be less in demand.

Seeing Sandy with her three kids, now twelve, eleven and nine, I see what the next phase of motherhood looks like. It is astounding to have the preview of that stage in watching my birthdaughter grow into a young woman. She is tall and poised and mature, thinking about mature things and experiencing mature relationships; busy with her own life. In the blink of an eye my daughters, now small looking up to their grown-up brithsister, will be there.

So with that perspective, I creep into the quiet kitchen to make my tea and bring it to the office where, ignoring the laundry and the toys on the floor, I write in the dark, uninterrupted hours of morning. Because it’s for me. It makes me happy and it makes me a better mom to do what I love. And before I know it my little girls will have their own lives and their own families and aside from having my husband’s undivided attention back, I will also hopefully have an established writing career. The laundry can wait.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Aiming Higher

The grocery store seems to be a place of particular difficulty for me and my daughters. We shop at a small co-op south of the city, and that might be part of the problem. It’s a small store and the girls are very comfortable there. So comfortable that they feel safe wandering away from my cart, exploring the isles, helping themselves to samples and clearing shelves into their mini cart when they see a package that looks appealing.

But it’s getting out of the store that is the hardest. Something about leaving the co-op leaves me angry and snappy each and every time. I don’t know if this will sound as aggravating on paper, but Thursday when we drove down just before lunch to grab those few essentials that can’t be substituted at our local Super Target, the girls were in classic form (I wish I could say it was rare).

As I waited in the checkout line, they each ran off and came back with armloads of treats and vegetable scrub brushes and random supplements that seemed necessary because of their “cute” small containers. As a mom, I’m used to being begged constantly for stuff and I’m really good at saying no. But having to repeat it over and over as calmly as possible, with a smiling clerk asking for my card, then my ID, then my signature, and with a long line of impatient shoppers having to move out of the way over and over for my daughters each bringing their “needed items” to my feet and then having to move out of the way for me while I chased my daughters’ wiggly bodies back out into the isles, all the while trying to bag my groceries as quickly as possible so I could get out of the narrow check out (this is not like a Cub or Rainbow where the isles are equipped to handle long lines and big piles of groceries; its more like, well like a tiny co-op) was more than I could handle with grace.

Finally the unaccepted items are back on the shelves and I am madly bagging groceries and loading them into our tiny cart. The girls have circled back and are filling their hands with brochures from the table near the door. Patrons are tripping over them as they come in and the table is a mess of mixed up literature. Suddenly I am sweating and have to rip my coat off. I make threats at my kids and pick up my last bag a little too quickly. One handle rips and the bag falls on the ground.

The mixture of anger and embarrassment is a lethal cocktail when it starts pumping through your bloodstream and no one is more at risk from this altered state of mind than your young kids who may or may not have triggered the anger in the first place.

I spit and hiss something incoherent at them but this fails to rein them in. They want their mini smoothy drinks that they convinced me to buy. Not wanting to argue, I uncap and hand them over. Finally, my broken bag is re-bagged and I am heading for the door. I am reminded not unkindly that the mini carts can’t go outside. Instead of getting a bigger cart, I decide I can carry the four moderately heavy bags.

Jada is putting the smoothy on the floor, right in the isle where customers walk to leave with their carts and groceries, so that she can climb onto the motorized wheelchair for patrons who cannot walk the isles. They should make a two-seater for moms with small kids. I tell Twila to come with me and Jada to get down and pick up her smoothy. Of course, none of this happens. Twila wants to “help” me get her down. I tell Twila to let me handle it. Of course, this doesn’t happen. Jada is now crying and Twila is about to stumble backwards into Jada’s smoothy. I set the bags down and grab their arms a little harder than I need to. Everyone is watching, and I’m angry and embarrassed.

I’m angry because I feel like I can’t get my kids to listen to me lately. It seems they don’t take me seriously until I lose it and scream at them, which makes me feel awful because I want to be a calmer mom than that. And I’m embarrassed because everyone is watching me lose it with my kids, looking at me like I’m “that mom” and I know that in this moment, I am that mom who we look at and pity but also despise as she screams at her kid in the toy isle. We despise her because we know her kids are her own creation. She’s made them this way and now she’s punishing them for being what she created. We pity her because we’ve all been there at one time or another.

Right now, I am that mom and I can’t pull out of it because adrenaline is coursing through me. I’m hot and tired and I just want to get out of the store. I tell Jada not that quietly that if she doesn’t pick up her smoothy I am throwing it away. Because she is in the master testing age, she doesn’t even consider picking it up. Instead, she stands back, keeping her eye on the smoothy and me, alternatingly.

She’s not the only one watching. The whole store, it seems, has stopped what they are doing to see if I will make good on my threat. So of course, I have to. I swiftly march over and pick up the smoothy and without hesitating, drop it in the trash.

“NOOOOOO!” Twila screams as if her beloved puppy has been ripped from her arms.

Jada comes unglued and hits the floor.

With super human strength, I somehow scoop up four bags of groceries and a writhing toddler. “Come on, Twila!” I bark and drag us out of the store.

It wasn’t the worst time we’ve had at the co-op, but it certainly wasn’t the best.

The girls sniffed in the backseat, dejectedly. As I drove, my rage ebbing as I started to see the ways I could have handled the situation better. Hindsight is so much clearer.

Twila shared sips of her smoothy in the backseat. Jada thanked her each time. Their sweetness to each other always amplifies the voice of guilt in my ear.

When I had calmed down, I explained to the girls why the grocery store ends up feeling stressful for me: having them run off, having to look for them, fix messes, say no over and over…

As I explained, my voice got higher pitched and intense and I realized I was still a little angry so I lapsed into silence again.

Last week Ryan was home between Christmas and New Years. The best thing about this is that he gets to see how hard it is to be home with the girls day after day. The worst thing is that we have a lot of fun when he’s home and when he goes back to work not only are there tons of mundane house work to catch up on, the absence of his warmth and fun is sobering to all three of us. I find myself doing a kind of tap dance to show the girls that we can have fun, just the three of us, but then end up resenting the tap dance I have to do for my daughters to get excited about me.

It’s become a running joke that whenever we all play some kind of imaginative game, Twila’s the princess, Ryan’s the prince, king, night, Jack, from Jack and Annie…Jada’s usually a baby, a little sibling or an animal, and I am always and invariably, a witch. Even if the story doesn’t easily include e a witch, we work one in for me, so I have a role to play. And though I’ve been told by a friend who has two boys and always has to be a dinosaur stuck in the mud, to count my blessings, after a while, it’s hard not to take offense.

Thursday was a hard day. Tuesday Ryan went back to work and everything was chaos and consolation. Wednesday Twila and I were gone all day seeing Hairspray at Chanhassen Dinner Theater, which was AMAZING and fun but took absolutely all day and I came down with a migraine on the way home at 4:30 so Thursday was the first day that real life had to come back together. Piles of laundry had to be folded, lists of things had to get done, Twila’s Kindergarten application had to be finished, bills had to be paid, checks had to be deposited, groceries had to be scavenged and collected. It wasn’t the most chaotic day we’ve had, but it certainly wasn’t the calmest.

Last night as I made dinner and attempted to check in with my email, while simultaneously fetching healthy snacks for the girls who just can’t wait until Ryan gets home to eat, I rounded the corner too fast and drilled my rib cage on the corner of one of our tall, heavy chairs. It just about dropped me. The wind was knocked out of me. I thought for a minute I might have cracked a rib. But far from noticing, the girls kept shouting at me to get things for them, kept shouting at each other. I felt so hurt—overly hurt—by their insensitivity. I know their just kids and they probably didn’t see it happen. But it hurt my feelings anyway to be treated like some robot whose primary function is to serve them.

I stormed into the kitchen where crumbs were being swept onto the floor that I had just cleaned and I barked that I was hurt. Of course this was news to them.

I left the half-made dinner and went and sat on the couch.

A few minutes later, Twila left her snack and came and stood by me and I hugged her.

“I didn’t know you got hurt, mom,” she said.

“I know.”

Then she wrapped her arms around my head and patted the back of my head in that maternal way she does. “That must have hurt your feelings that we were shouting at you to get us water when you were hurt.”

It’s not a new phenomenon for Twila to parrot our parenting back to us. But when it’s a positive gem of parenting wisdom instead of helicoptering over Jada or threatening to put us on timeout, it makes my heart just about burst with joy.

Just then Jada came slowly marching out of the kitchen, her half-eaten bowl of corn raised up high, her characteristic mischievous grin, lighting up her face, “Happy chew you, chew you!” She sang to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday to You.’

Twila and I smiled as Jada marched forward singing to us. She finished as she arrived and Twila and I blew out our imaginary candles.

And it’s that moment that I will hold with me today as I start another day, hoping for more peace and patience and less aggravation. I quietly sit in the quiet peace of predawn, before anyone else is awake, readying myself for another day. And when I look back on yesterday, but also on this era in our lives, I’ll remember that moment instead of the frustration and tension and stress that permeates some days. And I hope that’s what my daughters will choose to remember too.