Tuesday, April 24, 2012

To Be Ignored

As I made out my to-do list last night, I wrote at the bottom—as I always do—‘have wisdom teeth removed.’
This is an item that has been showing up on my lists with regularity for the last five years. My dentists have been ordering me to have all four wisdom teeth removed for exactly fifteen years. Through cowardice, changing dentists and three pregnancies, I’ve managed to avoid this directive for longer than even I thought possible when first given the horrible verdict late in high school. But now I’m beginning to see the effects of not following my dentist’s directions: jaw pain, headaches; bite marks on the insides of my cheeks, the orthodontic work my parents paid handsomely for moving around. And now I wish I had done it in high school when I was still living with my parents.
Now things are much more complicated. When is a good weekend to be laid out on the couch unable help my kids and husband find the mayonnaise, pairs of socks, the car keys, shoes, the toothbrushes? Every morning I write it on my list and every night I go to bed shaming myself for ignoring my dental health, hardly able to slide a piece of floss between my crowded teeth.
But it’s easy to put off things like that. Anything that’s not ringing, or screaming or beeping, or begging seems very easy to ignore these days. Especially in light of all those things that ring, beep, scream and beg in a given day.
This morning I woke up to Twila diving onto my bed in mid-sentence, “Jada said she’d trade balloons with me but when I gave her mine she just kept both and that’s not a trade!”
Of course she couldn’t know that I had been up with Jada from four to six thirty in the morning feeding her sips of water and praying that this new cough was really just the end of last month’s respiratory virus and not, like it very much sounded, the on-set of croup. She couldn’t have known that when finally, as the sun began to rise and Jada was finally soothed back to sleep, our cat Honey had started meowing very close to my head as if she and Jada had prearranged to take my sleep deprivation in shifts. But despite Twila’s inability to know how little sleep I had gotten last night, the jarring of her demands before my sandpaper eyes were even open started my day off in a less than ideal way.
I dragged myself out of bed and struggled to remember what day, what season it was. It’s a little after seven and the sun is beating through the windows.  That rules out fall and winter. I remembered the girls picking lilacs yesterday afternoon. Spring. It must be spring. Maybe April. Twila is still making her case for one of Jada’s water balloons. I stumble to my bathroom and start pulling on pants. Then Jada is there asking where Daddy is. Slowly I remember what day it is. It’s Tuesday, the day Ryan had a seven thirty meeting at work. I help Jada slip off her pull-up that we’re only using at night now. So it’s not even on my radar that poop might have filled the pull up, be squished all over Jada’s back and become immediately smeared down the backs of her legs. In Jada’s urgency to step out, she steps in the middle of the diaper, instantly detects that something is wrong and stomps out of the diaper, tracking poop onto the rug and grinding it into the fibers.
Good Morning!
I fall into my go-to response and yell at Twila to get me wipes and paper towel and a plastic bag. It’s this response mechanism that keeps me up nights. I tend to lean on Twila too much when the stress of handling eight moving parts at once gets to be too much.  I’ve wondered on many sleepless nights if relying on her in this way will contribute to her sense of confidence, and capability. Or if it will erode her self esteem by robbing her of her right to be a carefree child. Will it be what she focuses on for countless sessions of therapy: how her mother’s overdependence on her led her to a life of self-doubt and deviant behavior.
But when I’m half awake and poop is suddenly everywhere including smeared all over a fussy toddler who’s demands vacillate between whining and screaming twenty four hours a day and who is now trying to pull away from me and run from the room with poop on her feet, what else can I do beside bark at the five year old for wipes—NOW!!
And so it was one of those mornings, one of those that seem to be the rule more than the exception these days. So often now things seem to roll on without me and I have to run to catch up to do damage control. It’s different than the days when at least one was an infant and had to wait for me to make anything happen: snacks, entertainment, stories, games, exercise, opening doors. Now if I’m not paying attention the girls might together or independently squeeze out or just plain eat an entire tube of toothpaste or bottle of lotion, make soup out of everything they can reach in the cupboards plus water, find the perfumes and lipsticks I’ve hidden in the very highest places in the house, run outside and get the mail and hide it in the basket of someone’s trike, lock the cat in the bathroom, start the washing machine, or the dishwasher or the car. They are so capable now it’s dangerous. And messy. That they were fighting over water balloons with a bowl of dry cereal between them and a profoundly dirty diaper on one of them was a lucky outcome for being left to their own devices for fifteen minutes. I’ve woken up to much worse.
And when one disaster is contained, another one crops quickly up. Like this morning at 8:56 when I remembered it was a school day and we needed to leave in four minutes. Twila was still in her night shirt and Jada still half naked. I dropped Twila at school this morning with un-brushed teeth and an unwashed face in yoga pants and a sweatshirt zipped up high to hide the fact that there was nothing underneath it.
It’s no wonder that my wisdom teeth are still in my mouth after all these years. They don’t ring, beep, beg for snacks, rip things out of the cupboards or draw all over the car with ball point pen. They don’t have anywhere to be on a schedule; they don’t charge me a late fee or knock on my door. They are easily ignored. They just sit quietly in my mouth, waiting patiently to be brushed and eventually removed. Come to think of it, they aren’t so bad. I just might keep them.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Back to Reality

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that real life awaited me when I returned from a weekend of blissful warmth and quiet in Palm Springs. But somehow it took half a week to get back into the rhythm of caring for the girls, running the house.

It was the first time Ryan stayed home with the girls for this long and they were all very happy to have me back. Over the days after I returned Ryan kept saying that he had seen in a new way what it takes to parent alone. Ryan’s work has kept him traveling frequently over the last decade, but since his weekend with the girls I’ve noticed him choosing a red eye flight home over staying the night out of town, and leaving our house before dawn over leaving the night before.

But even with his sensitivity more honed, there is no getting around the demands of his job that keep him at work long days, up at his computer at night and frequently boarding a plane. Maybe there is no getting around the demands of this young stage of life. Young children, a young career. The demands are myriad and ever changing. But at least we’re in it together.

The relief that Ryan experienced when I got home, that peace at knowing there is another adult who will chase the kids and keep them from tearing down the house, is a relief I know well. Each night when Ryan gets home I breathe, sometimes for what feels like the first time all day, in the silence of the kitchen as Ryan chases, carries or wrastles the girls down the hall to get their jammies on.

Admire is not a strong enough word for what I feel towards single mothers. I literally don’t know how they do it. It makes me a little scared to think about it. Parenting is really, really difficult. Even with two supportive adults. The truth is, parenting is probably best done by a whole army of people with fresh patients and familial love and affection for the growing, challenging, ever-changing child. But in America, the “village” culture is not one we know. Very few of us live in walking distance from any family members let alone all of them. How different life would be, how different our children’s’ experience if we had a dozen relatives out our back door to send the kids to, or ask for help from or share food with. This is a fantasy I have sometimes: having family surrounding us literally, and supporting us. I have this fantasy more intensely when I have a week like I did last week.

I had only recently returned from my vacation, batteries recharged and patience restored, when both of my daughters got hit with a respiratory infection that had them both up at night coughing and sneezing. As it happened, this very same week, a very huge thing blew up at Ryan’s work: a disaster crisis kind of situation that had him up late nights and gone before we got up in the morning. And because fate seems to find deep amusement in our panic, the new renter whose application we had recently approved decided that he wasn’t going to sign the lease after all. And since sometimes Karma wallops us across the side of the head without warning—perhaps for some despicable wrong I committed in a past life—the week that the kids had kept me up all night for three nights in a row with coughing and sneezing, the day after Ryan left for a three night conference, two days before I planned to fly with the girls by myself to Phoenix, and the very day I had to show our duplex to four potential renters, I got hit with one of the worst viruses I’ve had since I was a kid.

My head throbbed with congestion. My sinuses endlessly produced thick mucus. My throat itched and was sore when I swallowed. My body ached, I had the chills, I couldn’t stop sneezing long enough to speak to renters on the phone. And Ryan was gone.

Ryan was gone and I felt very alone. I had to show the duplex. With the sick kids. There was no one to watch them and with a May first vacancy, no way to postpone the showings. Its days like these that have me questioning the appeal of all this privacy and independence we prize in America. On a day like this, living in a one room house in Peru with aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents filling the surrounding village sounds far better than my big yard and quiet, empty house.

Having never lived in Peru or with my relatives filling my property, I am free to romanticize this vision. In reality I might go crazy having so many people, so many opinions filling my parental space, interfering in my marriage. But on a day like that day, a little interference sounded welcome.

We got through that day. Like we do. Mothers know that we can get through much more than we thought possible before we first gave birth. Motherhood pushes us to greater and greater extremes, stretching our boundaries and showing us what crisis really means. Yet no matter how extreme the crisis, we find ourselves getting through it. It matters little how angry, upset, tense, anxious, patient, calm or controlled we are. One way or another we get to the other side of those epically horrible days and live to see the next one coming.

Two days after I showed the duplex and got stood up by half the appointments, I was locking up the house, feeding the cat, checking the key for our house sitter, turning the heat down, running the dishwasher, taking one last load of laundry out of the dryer and finally packing up the car to drive my girls to the airport.

. When three hours later we boarded the plane, rolling Dora suitcases in tow and gum in hand, an older mom started clapping as we walked by. “You made it!” she said as if we were old friends. And I knew exactly what she meant. The hardest part was behind us. The wrangling kids and hauling luggage was successfully complete and we had made our flight. She probably knew from experience that on the other end of this flight would be help: grandparents, a husband. People to hold and carry and help wrangle.

48 hours after arriving in Phoenix, the girls came down with an intense stomach virus.

When our plane touched down back in Minneapolis last night at 10:45, I was relieved that we had made it. I was beginning to get sick with this new virus too and the girls were in as bad a shape as they’d been all weekend. Listless and weak, we loaded them and our luggage and our borrowed car seats (because I had been out of cash when we gate checked our bags and somehow the car seats mysteriously stayed in Phoenix) into our car. And even though it was late and we were delirious and sleepy, and being home meant having fewer adults around to help, it was comforting to be back in rainy Minnesota, in our own car.

And today as the girls and I stumble around in jammies, wading through dirty laundry and trying to find suitable things to eat, the sink fills quickly with dishes and the floors I fastidiously cleaned before we left fill with crumbs: the evidence of children living here. And Ryan is back to work, managing crises and wading through thousands of emails. And it shouldn’t surprise me that the unrelenting pace of life pushes at every door as soon as we get home, but sometimes the battle against this unrelenting pace looks unwinnable. Do we ever get on top and stay on top?

If we get into a good routine for a few days, something comes along to throw us off our high horse and we’re flat on our backs in the dirt again. Sometimes it feels unavoidable but then again maybe we do it to ourselves.

I push myself, holding myself to unattainable standards, saying yes to too much, trying to be too many things to too many people, never letting myself be tired or even lazy for a little bit, not taking care of myself when I’m sick. But that’s the American way.

We’re rushing at such a break-neck pace all the time there is no real way to get on top of our responsibilities. Because if we do, we just add something else or push ourselves a little harder until we’re at the point of collapse. Because until we’re at that point, that crisis collapsing point, we don’t feel like we’re working hard enough.

Even vacations, the events we plan to force ourselves into relaxation and rest, become a source of stress in the preparation, in the realizing that we will be unavailable to the people who count on us. Between the preparation and the catch-up before and after vacation, we literally get more worn down from taking vacations.

I never thought a sink full of dishes and a floor full of dirty clothes could make me breathe a deep sigh of relief. But today it did.

Ryan is home all week to help me with the kids. There is nothing on my calendar yet. My girls are sick. And it’s rainy out. It’s a perfect day to do nothing. To just be. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to get in bed with my sick daughter and read a book and fall asleep with them and nap until I wake up, resting in the full assurance that my sink full of dishes will wait for me, that the laundry will be just as dirty as when I laid down. And in that small way even though the pace of real life is unrelenting, and the reality if I can’t force it to slow down, I can stop myself in the midst of it and find peace in the eye of the storm.