It always makes me feel a bit churlish when someone - well-meaning, usually - asks what I "do." The other day it was a handyman who will be doing a bit of painting to get our house ready for the ferocious real estate market. "Oh, you're a mom? THE MOST IMPORTANT JOB IN THE WORLD. Molding young souls, shaping lives, yadda yadda..." Well, gosh. Yes, I guess all the diaper changing and de-boogering and turning on Dora is somewhat important. But I'm pretty sure the work of oncologists, garbage guys, priests, pediatricians, teachers - even lawyers and mortgage brokers! - is pretty important, too. Don't patronize me, dude.
(Oh this poor handyman. Of course I didn't say any of this.)
But today was one of those days: Sylvie was being particularly ornery and Sylvie-ish. And every time I tried to put the baby down for a nap, in Sylvie would soldier and distract an infant who is now interested in everything that is going on around her, and won't just settle into a boob like she did two days ago. Colette was whiny and petulant. And so was I: in those odd ten minutes here, eight minutes there, when everything was peaceful and I could hear my own thoughts: why am I not doing something very IMPORTANT? Why am I not staging the house? Or writing The Great American Novel? Or earning some MONEYYYYYYY?
And then a dear friend - a friend who must be gifted with ESP, at the very least - texted me this article. And there I was, reading about my day:
"If you are so blessed that you have a toddler at the same time (as a baby), you wrestle with your emotions. Your former baby seems so big and, as you settle to nurse your baby and enjoy some quiet gazing time, you try desperately to push away the feeling that the great, lumbering toddler barreling her way toward you is an intruder. Your gaze shifts to her eyes, and there you see the baby she was and still is, and you know that you are being stretched in ways you never could have imagined."
Oh, right. That's why my life seems like such a treadmill sometimes. All these days, all these details: they are REAL work, and I need to remember that no, these kids aren't some sort of impediment to a greater goal. These moments, all this stuff and muck, is the real work. Everything else is fluff. And it's hard sometimes: but it's supposed to be, and you know what? It's fine if I take those eight minutes here and there and just drool. (Or watch the Real Housewives with Colette. Erm.)
I may never have a job again. I may never write a great book, or anything great at all. The world probably has enough workers, and certainly writers; but there is no one else who is this clan's mother. Yes, someone could be hired to do this while I went to a nice office somewhere. Or, if we were super rich, while I went to play tennis and got some pore-refining oxygen facial. But would someone else be so vigilant with the hand sanitizer and probiotics (those tools which I convince myself ward off all kinds of ickies)? How could I outsource all the details I've learned here? How to tell whether this one has a real tummy ache, or is just tired and sad about something? Who would know to watch how the boys get off the bus at the end of the day? Yes, they are all too capable of walking the 80 yards home, but there is that crucial moment where they leap down the bus steps, happy to be free and home; and if there is no bounce and grin in the disembarking, something is off.
It is all work: the loading up for baby ballet, the snacks ("can I at least have something HEALTHY, Mom?"), the lemonade pouring ("Or no just have some water!"), the knowing whether this one is spending much needed down time on Minecraft or really needs to get off now and join the real world. The ear tube appointments, the right diaper lotion for this rash, the 3 am feedings, the screen time "monitoring." So many little decisions each day: OK, this one can slide a little on piano; but this one needs to man up. OK, Colette, I'll indulge you in this whiny request for some chocolate milk, but no you cannot play with my phone. Sylvie, PLEASE DON'T PICK UP THE BABY.
I have to remember that every job has its days of frustrations, monotony and irritation. But not all jobs - certainly not the kind I had - yielded the occasional deep pleasure of watching a child start to master a new song, or seeing more than half of the kids actually eat something I've cooked, or a big brother helping a baby sister find her doll. Or even just the sight of them all bounding around the yard, screeching - yelling - these are the moments of life and beauty that are seared in my brain.
"This is the place where nearly two decades of mothering babies grants me the indulgence of sharing what I would have done differently. I would have had far fewer obligations outside my home. Now, I see that there is plenty of time for those, and that it is much simpler to pursue outside interests without a baby at my breast. I wish I'd spent a little more time just sitting with that baby instead of trying to "do it all."
I wish I'd quieted the voices telling me that my house had to look a certain way. I look around now and I recognize that those houses that have "that look" don't have these children. Rarely are there a perfectly-kept house and a baby and a toddler under one roof. Don't listen to the voices that tell you that it can be done. It should not be done. I wish I hadn't spent 16 years apologizing for the mess. Just shoot for "good enough." Cling to lower standards and higher goals."
Ah, lower standards sound wonderful too: a break from "parenting" as it's thrown around these days, which involves eighty three extracurricular activities, tutoring, and obsessing over gluten content. I will never use the word "parent" as a verb. Just covering the basics is good enough for me: love, food, clothing, shelter, attention, medical care, nighttime stories, and a bit of benign neglect. That's hard enough, Mama. Now go have a glass of Chianti.