Oh, cleaning and scrubbing will wait till tomorrow,
But children grow up, as I’ve learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down, cobwebs. Dust, go to sleep.
I’m rocking my baby. Babies don’t keep.
(from Song For A Fifth Child, by Ruth Hulbert Hamilton)
We’ve all been there. The moment in the mobbed grocery store when the cart is nearly full and you stop your toddler from pilfering raisins from the bulk bin, “we have to buy them first,” and he looks at you like this is the greatest, cruelest injustice he has ever faced, opens his mouth in a tremendous wail, and collapses bonelessly to the floor. So you are trying to wrestle him into the cart, and because you are a fucking pro, you get both of those windmilling legs into the leg-holes, and then the other kid, who now has a suspicious sugary dusting around his mouth that can probably be traced to another bulk bin, loudly declares that he needs to pee. So you pull the wailing, boneless thief back out of the cart, and he kicks you in the chest in the process, and the other one screams with sudden, terrible urgency REALLY I HAVE TO GO NOW I HAVE TO GO RIGHT NOW NOW NOW. You abandon the cart and grab his hand, the other kid under your arm like a howling parcel, and you slalom-run through the crowds to the bathroom. He makes it partway but his underpants are wet enough to warrant a change. So you help him change his undies with one hand while basically pinning the other kid to the wall with your other hand to keep him from playing with the toilet, and the older one, content now, randomly wants you to explain how the postal system works, and why airplanes have two engines, and why the biggest stars have individual names but the biggest trees don’t, and the little one is screaming the whole time “RAISIIIIIIINS!” You let them wash their hands for as long as they want because that calms them down, then you mop up the soap and water they’ve splashed everywhere with handfuls of paper towels, feeling guilty because The Environment. You take a deep breath. You hold one cold, damp hand in each of yours and pull them out into the store to go look for the cart, desperately hoping it will be where you left it. And that is the moment when somebody, usually an older women whose children are grown up, swoops in and tells you, “Cherish this time while they are little, my dear! It goes by so fast!” and you paste a fake smile on your face while thinking to yourself, Not fucking fast enough.
“Cherish this time!” People say this kind of thing to parents of small children All The Time, and somehow it’s never at a cherish-worthy moment. Just enjoy them. Don’t sweat the small stuff. As if the days aren’t made up of small stuff that needs to be sweated. They mean well, but they have forgotten what it’s like, and they don’t realize that they are just feeding the guilt monster its very favorite food. I get it, of course. They are speaking from a place of longing, even regret. No mother of grown kids, no granny who stops us in the street with shining eyes, really thinks we ought to prioritize, say, making puzzles with our kids (while cherishing every moment, of course) over practical matters like making dinner. You can’t eat a puzzle, as we have all learned from Curious George. What they are talking about is shifting our perspective. They are talking about gratitude and being in the moment. They are talking about not having a shitty attitude. In the meantime, we are cleaning up shit. This is the real balancing act: variations on Cherishing This Time vs. Oh-god-this-is-so-gross.
I am halfway out of the trenches. My older son is four and a half and my younger son is almost three, and the grocery store scenario above is more than a year old. When we are at home, I ignore my kids a lot. I hear myself, throughout the day, saying “not now,” and “I’m busy” and “maybe later.” Sometimes I am ignoring them because I am writing, which I take fairly seriously. Sometimes I am ignoring them just because I’m kind of a jerk, which I take slightly less seriously. Sometimes I am ignoring them because I have to do the dishes, or put away the laundry, or make their breakfast / lunch / dinner /snack, and these are things that need to get done whether I take them seriously or not.
For all the ignoring I do, there are still hours for playing outside, where I will applaud the millionth leap from the snow mountain and try to keep them from eating dirty ice. We eat every meal together, we read together and chat and tell stories and build nests to cuddle in, and sometimes I am bored out of my mind and sometimes I think I will burst from love, and sometimes I feel both of those things at the same time, which is weird and disconcerting, but in any case, I don’t feel like my kids are deprived of my attention. Denying it sometimes is fine, I am confident of that. The stickier question, for me, is how to feel about my own feelings. Is it awful to wish the day was over? What does it mean if I sometimes think I love my kids most when they are asleep? Is it OK to not cherish this time, sometimes?
The problem with “cherish this time” and “it goes by so fast” is that it doesn’t help to hear it. We know. This love is bigger and brighter than anything that came before. This love has made me both more and less than what I was. There are plenty of times, snuggling them close and kissing their squashy cheeks, listening to their little voices struggling to articulate their big thoughts, when I wish we could hold on to this time forever, and I am painfully aware of how fleeting it is. But then there are the other times, when I am just trying to get through it.
It is not helpful to feel like I ought to be cherishing this time when I am sleep-deprived and hungry and worn down to a nub of who I’d like to be, when the dishes are piled on the counter at home and my arms ache already from these big bags of groceries. The sun is going down, it’s been a long day, I just want to get home and start dinner, but the kids want to splash in the giant puddle of melting snow outside the grocery store. It’s time to go, I say, unconvincingly, and they shout BUT THIS IS SO FUN! They run to fetch slabs of ice from the side of the road, toss these into the puddle and smash them to bits, cheering gleefully, and the groceries are really heavy but the ground is wet, there is nowhere to put them down, why didn’t I bring a backpack?
And then this lady comes out of the store and beams at my kids. I know what’s coming. I brace myself. The lady looks at me, and I try not to look like I hate my life, because in spite of how I am feeling right now, I know that I am lucky, that I am ridiculously lucky to live here, to be safe and well, with healthy, laughing children. I know it can all change in a heartbeat. The possibilities for loss wake me up in the night. It is obscene to complain, but gratitude can coexist with feeling like crap, and never feeling like crap is a tall order, even in the luckiest life. The lady approaches and I ready my fake smile, because she’s going to tell me how fast it all goes, and I am going to nod like this means anything to me right now, or she is going to tell me to cherish this time, and I am going to try and pretend I am cherishing it rather than wishing to be home.
But instead she says, “Your children are so beautiful.”
I say thank you. She carries on, and I keep standing there with the groceries, hungry and cold and tired, watching them splashing and crowing and smashing ice, and I think, Yeah. They really are.
Yours, with love, gratitude, and a pretty shitty attitude,