Last night I found myself crying in the bathroom. I was tired and overwhelmed and I felt like I just couldn’t do anything right. That, and my five-year-old had just spilled his cup of water onto my laptop (the one I didn’t recently drop and break), so I was prematurely mourning the loss of four little lifetimes’ worth of photos.
(Thank goodness, somehow Old Faithful withstood the spill.)
As I cried, I felt a miserable sort of irony at the scene. Here I was, fresh off a string of admiring “I don’t know how you do it” comments from friends and acquaintances, and the truth was that I’m not actually all that satisfied with how I do it.
“It” being raising four, almost five small kids. Doing the work necessary for their care and for the maintenance of a household and a marriage, all while putting on a smiling face for the world.
I don’t think I’m a wreck; I don’t think I’m a bad mom. I know that my kids are well cared for, that they feel loved, and that on many days, I truly am doing my best. (So please don’t feel like you need to affirm me here.)
But I also know my own heart. I know that I’m selfish and resentful and intolerant, and in some ways I’ve wasted these precious first years of marriage and motherhood by wishing them to be something other than they are.
I’ve resisted the limitations that these beautiful kids have put on me. I’ve railed against my constraints. I’ve reveled in the kisses and hugs and wide-eyed stories, but wished that even they could be limited to set, predictable hours of the day.
I’ve focused on what I don’t have: physical autonomy and a wide-open mental space for ideas and accomplishments and order. Freedom.
(Just now I jumped out of my skin at two boys who were playing too loudly while I was trying to finish this post. Like, “How dare you be kids while I’m trying to think?”)
A few nights ago I had a dream about my old workplace. I was visiting it for some reason, wanting to help out my old colleagues, I think. But underneath the official excuse (whatever it was), I know I was there because I wanted a taste of my old life.
I wanted to be in on interesting things. I wanted to push my mind, not just my physical stamina. I wanted to be around people who make things happen. I wanted to see my accomplishments listed out, easily numbered. I wanted to feel important.
Not that I don’t think I’m doing important things now. I know I am; I feel the awful, awesome weight of this responsibility down to my core. But in the day to day living of it, motherhood’s importance is the kind you can take for granted.
Shuttling groceries in and out of the house doesn’t feel important. Wiping crumbs from under the table doesn’t feel important. Dressing wiggly, screechy little bodies doesn’t feel important. (And forcing them to sit on the potty is downright miserable.)
And so the time passes. You focus on what needs to get done in the here and now, and you can lose sight of why you do it. Children grow quickly, but they grow slowly too.
If we could get glimpses into our futures, of the men and women our children would become, perhaps we would find the drudgery more noble. Perhaps it would be easier to set aside the daydreams of freedom and the memories of what our lives were like before they were tied up (or down) by the next generation. Perhaps it would be more tempting to see these years as precious.
I will admit that I’m not there right now.
Right now, I’m so wistful for space and freedom that I push away kids who want closeness. Right now, I’m made anxious and agitated by the mess, yet I’m unable to keep up the pace necessary to deal with it. Right now, I’m distracted by my own disorganization. Right now, I’m desperate for an active life of the mind, yet I can’t focus well enough to pursue it.
This gig is relentless, and I don’t take too kindly to Relentless.
While I absolutely do not regret giving my entire thirties over to the dishes and the diapers and the dirty laundry that come with having children and caring for them 24/7, I do resent it a little. I miss what else might have been done in these years. (Which is ironic, considering that I spent my entire twenties resenting the things I was doing instead of having children.)
For the first time, I think I understand the desire to pursue career alongside motherhood, or even instead of it. I know that those paths were not for me, but I see their attraction.
Now back to that bathroom, I guess. Last night I cried because my pictures might be gone. And because the kids were too much for me. And because I wasn’t enough for them.
I cried because I never get around to backing up the photos, or even printing them out to display in our home. I cried because I can’t be trusted not to break my computers. I cried because I haven’t had a clear kitchen sink in a week. I cried because my backyard gardens look like jungles and my driveway is growing over with weeds and I never get around to them, either. I cried because I’m behind on getting my kids to do their summer homework and I haven’t taken them to the library in years. (Literally: years.)
I cried because I’ve been feeling uncharacteristically jealous of other moms lately – the ones who print pictures and do yardwork and go to the library. The ones who travel and take their kids to shows. The ones who can count professional accomplishments alongside parental ones.
And then I cried because here I am, crying about overgrown flower beds and summer homework when we might be going to (nuclear) war with North Korea. And an entire generation of Syrian children have been scarred, forever damaged by a war thrust upon them by grown-ups who care more about power than people. And plenty of kids here in our own country go without food and love and stable places to live, let alone trips to the library.
I’m not trying to say that I regret my choices. I love my kids more than I could possibly express. I love my husband and I’m glad to be pursuing this worthwhile work alongside him. I love my life.
I think you should know that I’m really, really good at starting blog posts. Like, you would be amazed at the quality of writing I can pour into three opening paragraphs on any given subject. Especially Donald Trump.
I’m about 15% tempted to start publishing blog posts akin to those group story-telling games we used to play at sleepovers. I’ll write the first three paragraphs, then another blogger can take the next three, and so on and so forth until we have some wacky, meandering, hilarious tale like nothing any of us could have created on our own.
This happened over the weekend:
That’s right folks – stare at it while you can! All of my dishes were clean at the same time. I washed the dirty dishes, cleaned the counters, bleached the sink, and then went to bed. Which means: I woke up to a clean kitchen. Just amazing.
This girl. She’s now four months old. I can hardly describe how smitten with her we are.
Oops – I didn’t post anything on the blog last week. See number 1.
Nearly six years into this stay-at-home-mom thing, I somehow still struggle with how relentless the work is. I spent this entire weekend waiting for a couple of hours to myself (To organize papers and clothing! Not even to do fun stuff!) and when those hours never appeared, I found myself on the brink of tears. Not because anything was really wrong, not because the weekend had really been bad, not because I was overly tired – just because my days all look the same.
Monday through Friday, I’m in charge of four small children for something like 14 hours a day, I take care of all the cooking and dishes and laundry and cleaning and familial logistics, and I’m at the whim of ever-interrupting hands and mouths and diapers. Call me crazy, but I’d like the weekends to look a little different.
Sometimes they do, but lots of times my husband (who really is a very involved father) works on (necessary! good!) home stuff, so isn’t available to help with much other than breakfast. One part of me gets that. The other part stands at the end of a Sunday night and looks toward Monday morning with something like desperation. Because this work is constant. It is never-ending. And I still haven’t gotten used to that.
We had some storms Sunday evening and when they cleared, the sky was breathtaking. Though it wasn’t quite amazing enough to knock me out of the aforementioned funk, it sure did remind me that funks are temporary. Thank goodness for beautiful skies.
Can you spot the beehives?
Thank goodness for breezes and low-humidity days too. We haven’t yet turned on the air conditioner, so lately I’ve felt like we lived in a jungle or a swamp, or on cooler days, England or Ireland. But today! Today is gorgeously clear, dry, and breezy. It’s just glorious. Hopefully this bodes well for the week!
On Monday, I fessed up to a week’s worth of mommy meltdowns. I’d shouted, I’d sought solace in the liquor cabinet (not much – I promise), I’d run away from my family, waving my arms in the air while making what my boys would likely describe as monster noises.
I was a real gem to be around, I’m telling you.
In the post, I attributed the meltdowns to my easily overstimulated/overwhelmed/distracted self. I said that I’d been failing to account for my weaknesses – parts of me that I know are there, but which I’ve tended to wish away rather than face head-on.
Since then, I’ve received welcome commiseration from fellow moms-to-littles, who say they share my struggles. And I’ve received words of comfort from more experienced moms, who remember what it felt like to be overwhelmed when they too were in these trenches.
Kid President! Who doesn’t love him?! (Thank you, Lisa, for the boost. I promise to do something fun with the boys in your honor.)
More fun than this.
In Monday’s post, I also promised a follow-up. It was supposed to be “tomorrow,” which was foolish of me to say, considering I was to be out of the house for most of the day on Tuesday and Wednesday (and I was in the middle of a miserable sort of cold). Mea culpa. Let’s just chalk this up to yet another of my weaknesses: a terrible sense of time.
Which brings me back to the follow-up post. This post. The remainder of this post is addressed to those of you who, like me, do NOT have it all together. It will be of no use to the well-organized, the efficient, the minimalist, the unflappable.
This post is for those who struggle with sensory overload, distraction, and a general inability to deal with more than one thing at a time. It’s for those of you who want to find a better way, but who keep finding your counters covered with clutter and your trash cans overflowing. It’s for those of you who only seem to remember important tasks while you shower and who never seem to be able to locate the right combination of shoes and socks to get your children out the door on time.
I’m on a journey and I want you to walk it with me.
That is, I don’t have this thing figured out. I’ve just thought about it (quite a lot), and I’ve asked myself some questions that you might consider asking yourself.
On a few counts, I feel like I’ve found solutions that work well for me. On others, I’m making progress. But there are a fair number of challenges that I continue to stew on, having not yet come up with good enough plans for addressing them. I’m working on it.
All in all, I suggest four steps for figuring out how to work with our weaknesses:
1. Go back and watch that Kid President video again.
No, seriously – take the opportunity to smile (and cry?) and remember that your children love you, distracted/disorganized brain and all. Make a mental note to be silly with them, to dance in the kitchen or sing in the driveway – or go do it right now! Allow it to give you some perspective on this whole thing.
2. Think about your own particular situation in great detail.
What are your triggers? Which small things contribute to your stress? Which parts of your home or your schedule trip you up? How do you use your physical space? Are your rooms and things arranged in such a way that they help or hinder your peace? How do your days and your weeks tend to proceed? Are you a morning person or a night person? How do you feel at different times of day? How much solitude do you need? Which of your family’s schedules – work, school, etc. are non-negotiable and which can be adjusted? Do you have a hard time remembering things? When do important ideas pop into your head?
3. Identify some potential solutions and try them out – but not all at once.
There’s no use in thinking you can devise a perfect system, let alone implement it in one fell swoop. So start small. Can you make a tiny tweak that will address one particular trigger? Go for it. Think you have a strategy for addressing a bigger issue? Try it out. But don’t bite off more than you can chew: you don’t want to feel like giving up because your plans prove to be too much for you. Small successes are still successes.
5. Adjust, add, and adjust some more. (Forever and ever, Amen.)
If a plan isn’t working out quite right, make an adjustment. When you’ve settled on one good solution, tackle another problem. When circumstances change, adjust your strategies along with them.
As far as I’m concerned, those four (well, maybe just the last three) are probably the most effective steps to making useful changes in your life: Think. Solve. Adjust.
How simple is that?
As I’ve been going about all this thinking and solving and adjusting, I’ve landed on several strategies that I’ve come to realize are essential to me. And who knows – maybe you’ll find them useful too. So here they are, along with some particular examples of what I’m doing, or what I need to do.
We have a large home. Inevitably, when we’re getting ready to rush out the door, or while I’m changing a dirty diaper, or as I’m juggling a half-dozen tasks at once in the kitchen – I realize we’re missing something. No one has socks. Shoes have gone missing. Diapers and wipes have not been replenished. The box of Kleenex is empty.
These are each small things – almost insignificant. But when they happen right in the middle of the crazy/loud/demanding hub-bub of caring for home and children, they can become the very straw that breaks the camel’s back. So as much as possible, I try to anticipate these small stumbling blocks and be strategic about avoiding them.
Now, don’t get me wrong – my house is pretty much a wreck right now – so it’s not like I do any of the below perfectly. I just try to do them well enough to prevent me from losing my mind.
The boys’ shoes are kept in a basket by the back door. Most of mine and Brennan’s sit lined-up right next to it. Their socks (as well as their underwear and pajamas, because we dress the boys for bedtime downstairs) are kept in a changing table located in the family room. (It is way easier to hop over to the family room for last-minute socks than to run all the way upstairs.)
We also keep lots of spare diapers and many, many packages of wipes in the changing tables. I keep some in my purse and more in a little back-pack, ready to grab for hours-long trips out of the house. We keep a couple boxes of Kleenex just out of sight so we don’t resort to swiping from the napkin holder until we make the next trek into the Great Upstairs.
I keep my car keys and sunglasses in the same place every day. I keep a grocery list on the fridge. I keep my drawers and cabinets orderly – all so that when I’m in a rush, I can find what I need quickly and easily.
I even keep (and this might be the idea I’m most proud of) a notepad on the master bathroom’s counter. Because wouldn’t you know it, I tend to do my best thinking and remembering while I’m brushing my teeth or taking a shower.
These are all piddly little things – but they’re real, effective solutions to problems that used to trip me up on a regular basis.
Keep to a weekly rhythm.
I’ve known for a long time that I have a laundry problem. And I’ve known for a long time that in order to make that chore less intimidating, I needed to do a little laundry each day. But it’s only been a couple of months since I’ve (finally!) landed on a strategy that works for me.
On Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, I do at least one, preferably two loads of laundry per day. If I’ve got my act together, the full baskets are set in the hallway the night before and the first load goes into the washer before I’ve even gotten the baby out of his crib.
But if I don’t have my act together, it’s not such a big deal, because Wednesdays and Saturdays are for sorting and catching up.
I plan to establish a similar schedule for cleaning our home, but I’m not there yet. (Mostly because the rooms are currently too messy to clean. Crazy, right? See below.) When I do come up with a schedule, I’m going to aim for the same rhythm: schedule work for Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays; reserve Wednesdays and Saturdays for catching up. Which brings us to…
Build in opportunities for catching up.
In addition to my can’t-handle-stimulation and shuts-down-easily weaknesses, I’m also a perfectionist. So a huge stumbling block for me is that when I don’t get something quite right, or when work starts to stack up faster than I can get through it, I tend to shut down and just refuse to do anything more. This tendency has been the death knell of pretty much every schedule I ever set up in the past.
Now, I have finally hit upon the realization (HOW could this have taken me so long?!) that I need to anticipate that particular stumbling block and build its solution into my schedule. That is, catch-ups.
So far, it’s working like a charm. No one week has looked “perfect” on the laundry front, yet in the months since I began my 4 Days On / 2 Days To Catch Up schedule, the chore hasn’t once stressed me out. It’s felt consistently manageable, and (wonder of wonders) we’ve consistently had enough clean (even folded!) clothes to wear.
Reserve the right to reset.
A major problem in our household (which is also attributable to the perfectionism thing) is the glut of deep-cleaning/organizing projects awaiting my attention.
I love the idea of doing frequent touch-ups so that deep cleans are unnecessary. But that requires you to actually start from clean. We’re far from there. (Maybe some folks know how to chip away at a cleaning project bit by bit, but this perfectionist’s instinct tells her to go big or go home.)
In the course of my daily life, though, I generally don’t have time to go big. Most days, it’s all I can do to keep up with the feeding/changing/cleaning that is absolutely necessary; cleaning my bathroom tub feels like a luxury.
But do you know what’s recently occurred to me? The concept of a “reset.” Next week, I’m hiring someone to watch the boys for several hours so I can “hit reset” on some cleaning/organizing projects that have been sitting around for too long.
I reserve the right to do so again – and again and again. If I can’t get a project done in the course of my everyday life, then clearly I need to step away from my everyday responsibilities to get through it. And if I have to hire someone to take those over for me for a few hours while I work, so be it.
Set aside time for the little things.
Here’s a place where I have an idea of what I need to do, but I haven’t yet properly implemented it.
My most obvious problem (and I know I should be loathe to admit this – look away, Mom!) is our overflowing trash cans upstairs. I enter our bathroom at night to get ready for bed, and there it is: a trashcan overflowing with Kleenex and dental floss. But I’m too tired to deal with it, so I don’t. In the morning, I’m rushing to do just what I have to do, so the trashcan gets bypassed again. Then I may not return to the space until that night, so the cycle is repeated.
I know what I need to do. I need to set a particular time to walk through the house and take care of the little things: empty the trashcans, replenish the changing tables with more diapering supplies, make the boys’ beds, wipe down the counters, tidy up a bit. Not doing these little things stresses me out, yet I fail to make time for them.
I tried the walk-through thing for a short while and I loved its results (I even enjoyed the work), but it didn’t last long – I think because I chose the wrong time of day. I keep meaning to try again at another time and see if it sticks.
Protect the time for yourself.
I think this one may be the hardest. It’s certainly the one I’m worst at.
I have a pretty good idea of how I should structure my day so as to best secure my health and my peace: I should get up early. I should take a few quiet breaks during the day (and a solid, several-hour break once or twice a week). I should get our family through dinner at a reasonable time. Each evening while my husband puts the boys to bed, I should head up to our room to unwind and ready myself for the next day. I should get to bed at a decent time and get a good night’s sleep.
But it pretty much never goes this way. I tend to stay up too late, so I get up too late. I run behind on all the day’s major events and by the time I’m done with our (also late) dinner, all I want to do is sit still in front of my computer. So I stay up too late again and the cycle continues.
I need to make a better effort to change this.
But I also need to (and I think this was mostly the culprit behind last week’s meltdowns) focus on my needs for solitude and space during the day. Pretty much anything I do that requires thought (since I’m mostly incapable of focused thinking when I’m surrounded by my children) has to be done at night, when the boys are in bed. But then, not only can I barely keep my eyes open, but I feed that unhealthy cycle of staying up too late/getting up too late/etc. And if I try to fit in such things during the day when the boys are up, things tend to go badly. (See last week’s meltdowns for Exhibits A through C.)
So last weekend after the meltdowns, I talked to my husband and we agreed that I’d try to hire a mother’s helper this summer. Nothing is settled yet, but I’m hoping to get someone here one or two mornings a week to take charge of the boys and give me some (quiet!) time in which to think, write, and re-charge.
I really think it will help. I really think all of these strategies will help. I just need to keep working on them. I need to keep adding and adjusting and adding some more.
We’ve been busy this week, preparing for the baby’s baptism party to be held this coming Sunday. We had more than the average amount of party prep on our plates this time, given that until just a few days ago, every room in our house looked like it was staged to be photographed for Blythe’s One Hot Mess link-up.
Seriously – It was bad. There was the junk, there was the laundry, there were the boxes upon boxes of my mother-in-law’s things that hadn’t been gone through. There were the heaps of dust gathering on and around said junk, laundry, and boxes.
But! After a week of behaving like a responsible, party-planning mother (read: mostly resisting bloggy temptations), we’re very nearly there on the mess front. Just a couple more boxes and a bit more junk (okay, and a lot more dust) to go, and we’ll only have the “normal” amount of boy-wrought destruction. Which, though offensive to the eyes, doesn’t take much more than a whirlwind picking-up session to remedy. The end is in sight.
So I’m sneaking in a quick blog post. How about some of this week’s scenes from our home?
Yesterday morning I walked into the kitchen to the sound of roars and growls and shrieks of laughter. The boys were half-standing in their seats (a posture that is most definitely not allowed at the table), clawing at each other and at us. I expected to see Brennan looking agitated, but nope! He was cool as a cucumber. “I gave them Muenster cheese,” he said.
Aaahh, yes. Muenster cheese. So easily understood as “Monster cheese” and therefore taken as an opportunity to act like monsters. One bite transforms you into a monster, the next turns you back into a boy. And so on and so forth. You knew that, right?
The other evening I had a far less endearing experience in the kitchen.
We were in the middle of a big thunderstorm, so loud you wouldn’t think anything could be heard over it: Bang! Rumble… CRASH!
Yet I was hearing quite a lot besides the thunder: My eight-week-old son was screaming because… I don’t know why, exactly. He’s eight weeks old. He screams. My two-year-old son was screaming just for the fun of it. (I’m sure of that one. He looked delighted with himself.) And my three-year-old son was yelling about “Did you know that storms can make trees fall down, Mommy? Mommy! DID YOU KNOW THAT SOMETIMES TREES FALL DOWN IN STORMS?”
All of this was going on while I was attempting to assemble a sorry little dinner for the boys. I stood at the counter with my back to the noise-makers, “Rumble… CRASH! Waaahh! Aaaah! TREES FALL DOWN IN STORMS!” and I couldn’t get the stupid dollops of peanut butter onto the stupid crackers without the blasted things crumbling in my hands. “Bang! Waaahh! TREES!”
My brain could no longer take the sensory assault. I yelled something really charitable, like “OH MY GOSH! What in the world do you think you’re doing?I can’t take it any moooore!” I think I even waved my hands in the air to emphasize that I really was losing it.
Loveliness. Pure loveliness.
Later that evening, again in the kitchen (which is pretty much where I live), I was trying to nurse the baby. I should have been sitting in the rocker we keep in there, but par for that day’s course, I was distractedly walking around. (Poor, neglected third baby – he gets far too few peaceful, focused feedings.)
All of a sudden, I noticed it: an ugly-looking bug that I thought maybe could be a wasp.
I had to get it. I wouldn’t be able to rest peacefully knowing that that thing was flitting around the house, capable of terrorizing my boys.
But I had to nurse the baby. The poor little guy was so fed up with interruptions that he’d LOSE IT if I set him down to go hunt a wasp. Hm. I’d have do both.
I scurried to the broom closet, grabbed the fly swatter, and scurried back, eyes darting around looking for the maybe-wasp – nursing the whole while. I half chuckled at myself as I moved around the kitchen while nursing my son and holding a fly swatter in the air, stalking a bug which I wasn’t even sure was a wasp.
Then I saw it. On the floor. Right there.
I hastily set the kid down and then WHAM, got the sucker. It wasn’t a wasp after all. I sighed and wiped up the mess as quickly as I could, then I picked up my son and resumed nursing him. Poor, neglected, third baby…
Okay. Out of the kitchen and back to the sweetness.
Do you know how cute it is to hear this slow, metallic dragging sound, followed by a THWACK and a bunch of little-boy giggles? Very cute. And unnerving at first. What could make that sound? What could cause so much giggling?
Rest assured. It’s just the sound of boys playing with their measuring tape. One boy holds onto the thing while the other pulls the tape out as far as he can, and then – yes – lets go. Drag, drag, drag, THWACK! Furious giggling.
Once I resigned myself to the fact that, yes, they might hurt their fingers and no, that’s not such a big deal, the whole situation was really pretty enjoyable. Go ahead – get your children a tape measure.
Even more sweet, the other evening I came downstairs to find all of my guys putting on a little “parade”. One boy had a kazoo, another had an improvised noise maker, and Brennan held the baby, bouncing him and making a marching tune from silly little noises. They marched around the first floor in time to the tune – the boys very serious about the whole business, Brennan’s eyes dancing with the silliness of it all.
A moment before, I’d been flustered and rushing and… oh, how that little scene did my heart good. I love my guys.
Last night I made a late trip to the grocery store so I could do the party shopping without all three in tow. I took the baby while Brennan put the two bigger boys to bed. At first it all went fine – the baby looked around until he drifted off to sleep. Peaceful. Productive.
Then he woke with a little start and everything went right down that hill. Fast. The poor guy seemed so unhappy to wake up in such an unfamiliar and over-stimulating place that he lost it. Once I realized that some vigorous back-and-forth cart pushing wasn’t going to do it, I took him out of his car seat and carried him. Which still didn’t work. I hurried through the rest of the trip as he continued to scream. When I got up to the check-out lane, I started throwing items onto the belt as quickly as I could. One-handed. I was moving fast, but I’m sure it was obvious to all that I needed help.
And then somebody actually stepped forward and… helped.
The gentleman behind me in line, who had thrown me some sympathetic glances a few minutes earlier in the dairy section, started unloading my cart. My very, very full cart. I almost objected – it’s definitely my nature to want to do things myself. I don’t want to need help.
But I stopped. I let that kind man empty my cart for me while I focused on calming my baby. Soon enough, it was working. I soothed, baby relaxed, and my cart was emptied – then loaded – before my eyes. A few minutes later, the same gentleman handed me my bags while I loaded them into my van (to the background music of baby boy screaming, once again.)
How nice. How nice and helpful in that moment, how nice and sweet in my memory. Thank you, Mr. Kind Gentleman In The Grocery Store. You made my day.