Red Light Days

As a mom of three children, there are two types of mornings.

Some mornings they wake up of their own accord, their circadian rhythms attuned to the customary 6:30 a.m. nudge and the light in the hallway switching on to ease them gently from their sleep. On these days they scurry down the stairs while I’m still packing their lunch boxes or standing at the kitchen counter with a bowl of cereal and a cup of lukewarm coffee, the creamer a faint swirl on the surface. They slip into a chair and ask for waffles with whipped cream – Eggo, obviously, not homemade. While they eat we listen to music they request, anything from Hamilton to Fallout Boy to a children’s musical duo who go by the name Koo Koo Kanga Roo.

I wouldn’t say these mornings are easy – mornings with my girls are never as simple as that – but there is a serendipitous feeling to them, a notion of things falling into place. We get ourselves into the car, dropping the older two off at elementary school before my four-year-old and I continue on to preschool down a stretch of Main Street interrupted by traffic lights at nearly every intersection. On what we like to call Green Light Days, we hit the timing just right, gliding under light after light without even slowing down. When we spot a red light up ahead, my youngest waves her imaginary wand and commands, “Change, light! Be green!”  When it does, I exclaim over the awesomeness of her magical powers, which makes her giggle.  

It is the best possible way to begin a day.

Of course, the opposite of a Green Light morning is a Red Light morning. And while I’m sure it isn’t actually the case, it feels like the days when all the lights are red are also the ones when everything at home is going wrong, when one of the girls wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and takes it out on me and her sisters, and all of the breakfast options are terrible and her hair won’t lay flat and if anyone looks at her they’re bound to get screamed at. On Red Light Days, shoes cannot be found, and someone hits someone else on the way out the door, and usually there are tears – theirs, mine, or both. After unburdening myself of the big kids, we crawl down Main Street, gritting my teeth at every stop. Why is the universe aligned against me? Why can’t I just MOVE at the pace I want to MOVE? When we get to the preschool, I pry my daughter off of my leg and hand her over without looking back.

It used to take me a long time to recover from a Red Light morning. But since I began to notice the ways these colors shaped my day, since I began to say to myself, as the lights turned from green to yellow to red, I guess today’s just a Red Light kind of day, I find it easier to smile and shake off the stupidity of all the morning’s arguments.

Sure, I get where I’m going faster on Green Light Days. There’s something powerful about the feeling that there’s a red (or green?) carpet rolled out before me, that the whole world is giving me the right of way. There are times when we all need to feel that way. On Green Light Days I get to congratulate myself: Look at that. Me and my kids, on our way, getting the day started on the right foot. We’re happy, we’re smiling. I must be doing something right. 

I realized, eventually, that there is a beauty, too, in the Red Light Day. True, on Red Light Days, my imperfections take center stage. My children’s too. We are messy and mean. We don’t often think before we speak. We let our frustrations boil over, and everything becomes about me, me, me, me. Everything is a little bit harder than we want it to be, even the simple act of getting from one place to another.

After enduring all the negativity of such a morning, it was difficult for me not to view the wave of red lights as a punishment, a cosmic joke of which I was the butt. All I was trying to do was get on with my day, and I was being THWARTED, damn it!

Or was I? STOP, the red lights said. As I breathed impatiently through my nose, replaying my tone of voice when I yelled, kicking myself for waking the girls up five minutes later than usual, the lights told me again. STOP. Stop the rushing, the blaming, the regrets. Stop comparing yourself to others, your kids to other kids. Stop comparing today to yesterday. Stop wishing that every day was a Green Light Day. It won’t be. When one comes along, take notice. Enjoy it. Those days are a gift, but so are the hard ones. The red lights aren’t there to thwart us, they are there to remind us.

When we view a masterpiece, do we walk by it? Drive past with a cursory glance? No. The act of appreciation, of our lives, our children, ourselves – it takes a pause to appreciate a masterpiece like that. It takes a full stop.

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In 2016

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2016 was my first full year as a stay-at-home mom. My duties included, but were not limited to: Changing diapers. Preparing meals. Basic housekeeping duties such as vacuuming, dish washing, and collecting slightly-used tissues from communal areas. Wrestling screaming children into pants. Wrestling screaming children into car seats. Wrestling screaming children in various public places. (In general, the wrestling was meant to keep said children from harm – being struck by a car in a parking lot, for example – but often made me feel as if the harm I was trying to avoid might be less traumatic than my face, inches from theirs, hollering, “STOP IT! I’M TRYING TO HELP YOU!”)

In 2016 I found myself needing something in my life other than these mother-related responsibilities. I joined a second book club. I volunteered for the leadership committee of our local chapter of MOPS (Moms of Pre-Schoolers). I took up photography in the most intense way possible, by committing to a 365-day photo challenge in which I promised no one in particular that I would shoot, edit, and post photos of my life every. single.day. I spent too much time staring at beautiful mothers and children on Instagram and decided to start a new Instagram community, called Honestly Parents, devoted to sharing pictures of imperfect families.

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It helps that they’re cute.

All of these pasttimes, while fulfilling in their own ways, were attempts to regain the qualities I felt I had lost at some point in my life as mother. In my home, with my children, I felt tired and irritated. The demands of motherhood, the meeting of everyone’s needs but my own, made me feel hopeless and unaccomplished. I would find myself saying terribly unfair things to my young children: How am I supposed to get anything done if you just keep asking me to get you things to eat? or Mommy wishes she could play right now, but she has a bunch of boring grown-up things to do. 

On top of the adjustment to staying at home, 2016 was the year that I stopped nursing our youngest daughter. The calories I was once able to consume were no longer nurturing a child, but collecting along my hips and waistline. I had already, in a triumphant and overly-smug closet clean-out, gotten rid of my post-pregnancy “fat pants”, and I found myself unable to button clothing that had fit me only six months before. In 2016, I was guilty of directing hatred at my own body. Nothing looked right on me. My husband told me I was beautiful and I scoffed. This body that brought three lovely girls into the world became my enemy. I realized, in one of the most depressing moments of my life, that I would need to buy a larger size of underwear. I came home with something (no offense, mom, but hopefully you see where I’m going with this) my mother would wear, and I thought to myself, “So this is what it is to be a mom. Gigantic underwear, a dirty house, and kids that think you would rather fold laundry than play with them.”

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A self-portrait of motherhood.

2016 is nearly over, and a new year is about to begin. We will celebrate birthdays and holidays. We will watch the seasons change. We will fill our calendars with obligations and activities; we will try to pencil in something that brings us pleasure. We will have sleepless nights when the children wake up, one after another, for no apparent reason. We will find scribbles on surfaces we could have sworn were spotless just a moment ago, and decide we are too tired to clean them, because what’s the use anyway? We will feel despair, at times. We will cry at stupid songs and yell at our children when they don’t deserve it. We will berate ourselves when we don’t deserve it.

The year to come will be no different than this one; life will continue as it has been, because the life you lived in 2016 is the life you were given. Sometimes it will be almost unbearably beautiful, and you will think to yourself that this, all of it, is a gift. You will call yourself blessed and post sentimental photos of you and your children, and you will feel happy. Other times you won’t, because the things that make you feel unhappy now are not going to magically disappear. Allowing yourself to recognize the great, great burden of motherhood does not make you ungrateful. It makes you a real, human woman.

I am a person who loves a good toast; it could have something to do with my appreciation for a good glass of wine (related, I believe, to my recent need for larger undergarments). And so, if I am able to stay awake until midnight this weekend to welcome the new year, I will say this: “To 2017: I embrace you, all of you, before I even know you. May I do the same for myself this year.”

Cheers.

 

Kindergarten Starts in Five Days- Here is How I’m Doing

The summer has been difficult.

My husband leaves for work and I stare at the clock as if it will somehow solve for me the problem of filling up the day. I have all three kids at home: I am their source of entertainment, their provider of every need. I try to set up playdates but our friends have scattered to beaches and family reunions. Or they work, like I used to. Like I fantasize about on days so hot that the driveway burns our feet and forces us to retreat into our air-conditioned home, where all the blinds are shut. Where the contents of our playroom are slowly dragged from room to room, until I feel like I am living in a murky hell of board game pieces and Barbie clothes.

Needless to say, I’ve been ready for school to start for some time now.

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My summer. Except ALL OVER MY HOUSE.

Still, my immense relief at reducing my daily load from three children to one- especially while grocery shopping- has not eclipsed the monumental fact that my oldest is starting kindergarten. Kindergarten! Like most milestones in my children’s lives, this newest transition is causing some majorly mixed emotions in this mama. Allow me to outline them for you:

Anxiety. I worry about the little things. My oldest is not a morning person. I am also not a morning person. Currently, our process of getting ready in the morning sounds like this:

Me: It’s time to get dressed now.

Me (five minutes later): It’s time to get dressed now. Didn’t you hear me tell you five minutes ago that it’s time to get dressed now?

Me (another five minutes later): Are you seriously still not dressed? 

Then I have to grab the keys and the other children and feign like I’m going to leave her sitting there in only her undies, because girls who would rather do a “Where’s Waldo?” puzzle for the 188th time instead of obeying their mothers deserve to be left home alone in an act of gross neglect. There are tantrums; there are tears. Mornings in our house are not the best. God only knows what next Tuesday morning will bring, but it is very possible that my child will be the only kid tardy on the first day of school.

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Wasn’t this, like, yesterday? Are we really about to do kindergarten?

Anxiety. We’ve checked with all of her preschool friends, and none of them are in the same kindergarten class as my child. Now, I’m one of those moms who doesn’t read too deeply into my child’s psychological state. Despite the fact that she’s disappointed not to be with her friends, the kid will get over it. She’ll be just fine. Even so, I know that I’ll think of her that first day and wonder if she’s feeling lonely or left out, and I’ll feel a little squeeze of motherly anguish.

Anxiety. This is my first experience as a public school parent. I know so many people who appear to be experts at navigating drop-off and pick-up, school lunches, PTA, homework, and all the other stuff I don’t even know about yet. Someday I will be one of those people, but right now I feel like somebody walking into their first Zumba class: stupid and lost.

Anxiety. Please let her not be “that kid”. Please let her keep her fingers out of her nose, and use her manners, and stop talking when the teacher says to hush. Please, between the hours of 7:30 and 2:30, let her not use the words “vagina” or “nipples”, which just happen to be two of her favorite terms.  Please let her go out into the world and show everyone what an amazing parent I am.

So yes, perhaps I am a little anxious- not that I would ever convey that to my five-year-old, who certainly has her own anxieties. For her sake, I will hold myself together long enough to send her off into her new classroom with a reassuring hug and a wave. Then I’ll sob a little in the car. Then I’ll drop my middle girl off at preschool and head to the grocery store with the baby, thinking about how lucky I am to have 180 days of this before next summer.

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Don’t let them fool you. They are completely unhelpful.

 

Why Every Birthday Wrecks Me

1Day99_0003Two days ago, my youngest child turned one. I never thought I’d be the mom who cried on my daughter’s birthday, but there were a lot of things I never would have imagined doing, before. That’s what becoming a mother does to a woman: it grabs hold of the person she was, or thought she was, it tears that person apart – yes, literally – and it rewrites her.  What had seemed impossible in her old life suddenly seems possible – for better or worse- to this new, revised version of herself.

But here’s the truth: this wasn’t the first time that I’ve dissolved into emotional anarchy on my child’s birthday. It happens every time, and why? Because I want to have three children ages five and under FOREVER? Uh, no. Not particularly. Because my understanding, when I gave birth to these girls, was that they would stay tiny and manageable, like miniature dachshunds? Cute, but no. Because the thought of finding a place in my house for all of their birthday gifts threatens to bring on a bout of long-dormant vertigo? Well, yes, but that’s not exactly it.

What is a birthday, to a mother? It is the finality of a year. It is the passage of 365 individual days, one indistinguishable from the next, the way the cars of a train or the dashed lines on the highway blur together as they speed past. I admit that in some ways, a birthday feels a little like grief. Where did a year go? What was I doing? What if I can’t recall all the strides they made, every little way that they grew and changed? Where do those memories go when they aren’t hoarded like treasures?

A birthday, to a mother, is a mad attempt to remember it all. It is the realization that we cannot remember it all, that in the past year the compartments of our brains have been gummed up with sleeplessness and shopping lists and frustration and perhaps one too many glasses of wine. Not everything that should have stuck, did. We see that as our failing. A birthday is a reminder that not every memory is going to stick, that most of the days we have with these beautiful human beings will simply be lived, not preserved. But a mother has a hard time letting go.

These feelings of wistfulness and regret do not diminish the sense of celebration, the joy, the desire to make our overwhelming love known to our child on this day, of all days. No, this is something else we learn quickly: that motherhood is all of it, at the same time, a big soup of loss and pain and love and pride. Our children grew inside of us and we brought them into this world, where they will continue to grow, apart from us. One year at a time.

And while we might wish- as the candles flicker on the cake and the cameras flash and everyone smiles wide- that we could make time stand still, ours is not the wish that matters, today. So we put it away. We smile wide, we live in the happiness of this moment, and we try to hold on to all we can of it, because we are mothers, and we cannot help ourselves.