Today I had one of those moments I wish I could bottle up for future enjoyment. I stood in the kitchen washing dishes while my three girls sat at the table eating lunch together. For some reason, I had pulled the baby’s high chair directly up to the table rather than attaching the tray. The girls were mostly finished eating when the baby started banging her hand on the table. To her sheer delight, her older sisters began to imitate her. I watched the baby look from one sister back to the other over and over, grinning from ear to ear as the three of them banged their hands on the table. The sound, which at other times might have spurred the onset of a migraine, was music to my ears. It was a soft, rhythmic drumming highlighted by happy notes of laughter.
I stood watching them for no more than two minutes before they were finished with their game, but as I watched them, I realized that this was one of the savory moments in life. In this moment, I felt so much joy and delight and love for my children. This is one of the moments I hope to remember during the not-so-pleasant times of sass and crankiness that are commonplace in a house with three girls.
Both of my daughters are an endless source of entertainment…well, most of the time. Today, not so much. Anyway, my two-year-old really keeps me in stitches most days with the things she says, such as the song she made up in the car yesterday that went something like this: “Boogers. Boogers. Everybody has boogers on them.” Children don’t come into this world equipped with a filter between their brains and their mouths. In a slow, arduous, and usually embarrassing process, we have to teach them not to speak out loud every thought that comes to mind. I’m sure you can think of plenty examples, even if you don’t have your own children, of awkward or embarrassing things kids say to or about other people…loudly…in public. Granted, their words don’t generally embarrass them, only their parents. One of my favorites: a friend told me her niece walked up to a woman (whom my friend knew well) and told her, “Your hair is scaring me.” This precious girl was simply expressing something most of us felt, but would never have uttered aloud. Her mother stood there mortified, while everyone else was busy wetting themselves they were laughing so hard.
My sweet two-year-old made some observations of her own a few weeks ago in the bathroom at the commissary. (For those of you who are non-military, a commissary is a grocery store on a military installment where we don’t pay taxes, and we can buy things like milk and meat really, really cheap.) The commissary I frequent is a half hour drive from my house without traffic. Often by the time I finally arrive, I have to make a quick pit stop. On one such day, my daughter and I went into the stall, and as I sat down on the toilet, she observed, “Your bobum (“bottom”) is big. My bobum is little.” I laughed and agreed with her. At this point, another woman walked into the restroom and sat down in the stall next to mine. Unfortunately, my girl was not finished with her observations for the day. Next, she asked me, “And why your bobum has hair?” At this, I started laughing really hard, which apparently made the woman next to me realize that it was okay to laugh too. When we came out of the stall to wash hands, she looked over at me with an embarrassed smile. I told her it was a shame she had missed out on the earlier observation about bobum sizes. This early twenties woman with no children of her own laughed again, and I thought, “You just wait…your day of humbling will come. Mark my words, it will come.”
When I married my husband, I remember feeling overwhelmed by planning a wedding and preparing for marriage and moving to a new state. I wish I could say that this is the only time in my life that I have felt this way, but I have moved five times in the past eight years. Like most people, I go through periods of time when I feel beleaguered by too many items needing my attention and not enough time to get them all done. I have been feeling this way recently. We were gone for a little more than two weeks at Christmas-time this year. I had a wonderful time, but I returned home exhausted and struggling to return to our normal routine. (I have to admit that I use the word “routine” loosely. In my mind I am extremely organized and have a set daily routine. However, in real life I thrive on flexibility in my day.)
As I was emptying the dishwasher a couple of nights ago, I was feeling overwhelmed once more. If you have small children you know that unloading the dishwasher is not simply putting away the plates and glasses. Emptying the dishwasher involves drying off everything as you pull it out of the dishwasher because plastic does not dry like other materials in the dishwasher. Sippy cups stay wet. Then they drip all over the other dishes. Plus you have all of the little pieces to dig out of the bottom of the dishwasher. I also only run the dishwasher when it is completely full…and I do mean completely. As I was beginning this seemingly arduous chore, I went through my usual mental pep talk that includes reminding myself to be thankful for modern conveniences such as dishwashers and washing machines because, really, it could be so much worse. Then I looked at all of the dirty lunch dishes sitting on the counter waiting to be loaded into the dishwasher. Then I glanced at the clock and noticed it was almost time for my husband to come home…and I still had not started dinner.
As the panic began to rise, I remembered something my father-in-law told me when I was newly married and overwhelmed. He asked me, “How do you eat an elephant?” I remember trying to determine if this was another one of his jokes or if he was trying to distract me. I told him I didn’t know. His answer was, “one bite at a time.” He then explained that when I look at everything and it all seems to be too much, to simply focus on one small piece of it at a time. This profound bit of advice disguised as an absurd question has stuck with me. When I get that feeling, I stop and remind myself of that silly question and the lesson to take it one thing at a time…one fork out of the dishwasher, or one step while running, or one toy off of the floor. Somehow focusing on the smaller details makes overwhelming days seem much less daunting.
I often find myself in conversations with other people about appropriate expectations for young children. These conversations generally revolve around schools and preschools and the sometimes elevated expectations adults have of young children’s behavior. However, last Friday I was at a MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) meeting where the speaker was talking to us about being nurturing parents. She had a lot of really great points regarding love and discipline, but the point I have found most useful was regarding expectations. The speaker told us to expect that our children are going to do bad things because they are, and if we are expecting it we won’t be quite as shocked. She was not implying that we let our children do whatever they want or get away with inappropriate behavior. She was simply saying that kids are going to do things you don’t want them to do. If you are expecting it, you can deal with the behavior…not your own disappointment regarding their behavior. I have found this bit of advice to be most useful this week because it has spared me a lot of frustration with the girls. For instance, I prepared myself ahead of time yesterday to expect the girls to interrupt me while I was trying to clean the bathroom. I gave myself the same little reminder as I was preparing dinner last night and again while writing this blog this morning. (Not that interrupting me is “bad behavior”…just a little annoying at times.) I have also been working on anticipating situations that I know will be more difficult transitions for the girls. This has allowed me to be able to plan ahead for how to manage their behavior if or when it does occur. Changing my expectations of the girls and their behavior has really helped me be more patient with them, and it has made the time I spend with them so much more enjoyable.
The first task my daughter must complete every morning when I drop her off at preschool is to wash her hands. As a mom, I really appreciate this classroom rule because it helps cut down on the number of germs passed around at school. However, I doubt that many children have paused to consider the reason for this mandate. I have noticed, though, that the children in my daughter’s class and children in general, seem to have two different views of hand-washing. Some children view this task as a chore. It is something that must be accomplished in order to move on to the next thing. For those children who hold this particular view in my daughter’s preschool class, it is an assignment they must complete in order to reach their ultimate goal, that of playing with the other children and all of the fun toys they don’t have at home. They quickly rinse their hands, shake off the water, and run along to play. Other children, however, seem to actually enjoy the process of washing their hands. They relish the feeling of water pouring over their skin or suds slipping through their fingers. They revel in observing the water swirl around as it drains or the soft mounds of bubbles left behind in the sink. They take their time washing, rinsing, and carefully drying their hands before wandering off to play. These children find pleasure in the task itself. They aren’t simply going through the motions.
Contemplating children and their varying outlooks on hand-washing made me stop to think about how I view the mundane chores of life. How often do I take pleasure in the moment, regardless of what I’m doing? Do I ever stop to delight in the act of washing dishes or clothing or children? Do I savor the moments I spend vacuuming or dusting or scrubbing toilets? Believe it or not, I do every once in a while. However, because I am very task-oriented I mostly fly through my days checking items off of my to-do lists. I cross off one item so that I can move on to the next. I get discouraged when I don’t accomplish all I had planned for the day, or I get frustrated when my children clamor for my attention while I’m trying to complete my household responsibilities. Perhaps reflecting on this will help me to slow down and treasure all of the moments of my day, especially those involving my children. I seem to enjoy mopping the floor so much more when my older daughter comes to ask me for something, but ends up sticking around to “help.” Getting the children to clean up their toys at the end of the day becomes fun when I take the time to turn it into a game. Focusing on the small tasks, and feeling a sense of accomplishment when I do get them done is so satisfying. I guess what I’m realizing is that finding joy in the mundane just makes life so much more enjoyable.
My first child slept through the night within the first six weeks of life. We could feed her, swaddle her, put her in bed still awake, and the little angel would drift off to sleep for six to seven hours straight. That was just as a newborn. As she has grown older, once she falls asleep for the night, she is down for the count. It is magnificent. My husband and I had it all figured out, or so we thought. Then we had our second baby. I spent at least the first six months of her life sleeping in the armchair in her room, holding her. To put it mildly, she was (and still is) a light sleeper. I would watch her little eyes flutter closed. I would wait a good half hour, and then I would gently place her in her bed. Sometimes she would wake up and voice her displeasure at the indignity of being made to sleep in her crib instantly. Other times she would wait until I was across the house and settled snuggly in my own bed. Either way, I eventually gave up. I would kiss my husband good night and head off to my new armchair bed for the night. (Let me tell you, this was not a Lazy Boy either…this was just a plain old armchair without an ottoman that I laid across sideways.) I did finally figure out that if I positioned bed pillows correctly in her crib, I could trick her into believing she was still being held, at least for a few hours. And before any of you finish gasping about the dangers of putting pillows in a baby’s crib, let me say two things. One, the child came out of my womb holding her head up. I kid you not. She did this within minutes of being born. (That should have been my first clue that she would be “active” and “strong-willed.”) Second, and most importantly, desperate times call for desperate measures.
After two years, she still likes to visit with us in the middle of the night. She gives us two or three nights in a row of solid sleep, just to give us a bit of respite and trick us into believing that maybe, just maybe, she is going to settle into a normal sleep routine. Then, seemingly out of the blue, we hear her, not crying, but calling…“Mama? Maaa-maaa!” To give my youngest a bit of credit, she did go for about a month once of sleeping through the night. However, just when I began to feel like a real person again with coherent thoughts and a desire to look presentable, she started waking in the middle of the night. We have yet to determine why she wakes up. Sometimes she’s hungry, sometimes thirsty, sometimes hot, sometimes cold, lonely, bored, who knows??? She has been potty-trained since she was about 20-months-old, but she still sleeps in a diaper, so sometimes she wakes up if her diaper is wet. If she gets a cold, forget about sleep. If she cannot breathe easily through that tiny, adorable nose, she is not sleeping…no mouth breathing for my girl.
I know I am not alone in this. I constantly see Facebook posts from friends with young children going through the same sleepless struggle. And I do mean struggle. Having disrupted sleep every night is really tough. I look like a hag most days. I’m convinced that the day I show up to pick up my older daughter from preschool actually wearing make-up her teachers are going to ask for my I.D. before they let me take her. Two years of this is really taking a toll on me. I read a disconcerting article recently about sleep deprivation studies using rodents that found that these poor animals actually died when they were prevented from sleeping over a period of a few days. In case you are hoping I’ll cite a source for this study, you’re out of luck. I am just too tired to look for it right now.
I had an interesting phone conversation with a good friend the other day. She has two small children, and recently quit her job (as a PhD working in the field of training educators) to stay home with her kids. She basically expressed that with all of her friends (and even two sisters) that are stay-at-home-moms, no one EVER mentioned how hard staying at home is. Her frustrations had to do, in particular, with the cleanliness of her house. She exclaimed, “I finally finished cleaning in one month what it took my housekeeper one week to do!” I reassured her that this was normal. She was particularly relieved because she has known me for most of my life, and she knows how much “attention to detail” I pay to cleaning my home. (This is a nice way of saying that I’m anal when it comes to cleaning.) Well, she knows how much attention to detail I USED to pay to the cleanliness of my home. Now that I have to clean in the midst of two small kids, not so much. We laughed that while cleaning the toilet bowl can be done because it’s a quick task, scrubbing the tub can’t generally be completed without interruption. I have also found that the dusting of lower objects and shelves can be completed regularly if you can convince your preschooler that this is a fun task. This is why if you ever visit my house you will notice that the only objects that are dusted are shorter than about four feet. There are basic tasks that have to be completed for everyday living, such as preparing food, running and emptying the dishwasher, and washing clothes (notice I don’t include folding and putting them away), but by the time these are complete, there is often little time left for other tasks such as mopping the floors and ironing.
This whole conversation gave me a bit of validation. I know other stay-at-home moms feel the same way that my friend and I do. (I can only imagine that being a working mom without a cleaning service is even worse.) I think I just forget sometimes that other people are experiencing this same feeling of failure over what doesn’t get done during the day that I do. I have to work sometimes to remind myself that it is not so much about what I DON’T get done, but rather what I DO get done, both big and not so big. I brushed my teeth; more importantly, I brushed the kids’ teeth. I made my bed. I have fed the children and kept them alive and mostly happy. Also important, I’ve played with my children, enjoying this brief period of time when they are young and tender and actually want my attention. I’ve walked the dog and fed both he and the cat. I have written this blog! I think it is important for my own mental health to keep this perspective, focusing on the positive of what I have accomplished (no matter how small or seemingly insignificant) rather than focusing on the negative or what I have not accomplished for the day (you know, those illusive tasks such as showering).