The Whole Wide World

I woke up in the night – around 1 a.m. – to fat little hands brushing my hair out of my face. When I opened my eyes, there was my three-year-old leaning over me, his eyes shining in the dark, and he said, “Why do bugs live in the whole wide world and we live in houses?” I mumbled something. Or maybe I said, “shhh,” because his voice got even softer: “Maybe they sleep underground, or under a leaf?” I rolled onto my side and said, “Maybe, yes, that’s right,” and then he lay down next to me and fit his head under my chin and fell asleep in under a minute, with his mouth smushed against the hollow of my neck. He was out, just like that, and I lay awake for an hour or more afterwards, listening to distant traffic and thinking about the whole wide world and how much I miss it sometimes, but even so, who could walk away from this? 

It still often feels like an either / or to me. Motherhood vs. Everything Else. It’s a bad attitude, I guess, but I have been So Tired for So Long. Back when I used to wander the world I saw mothers toting babies and toddlers and I always thought, oh look, if I have kids I can still gallivant! But I can’t. There are many reasons why not, and Money is a big reason, but there are other reasons to do with who I am and who they are. Routine and stability have kept this ship afloat for the past few years, but change is in the air. They are changing, and they change so quickly. Even though this is of course the way of it, and I knew that beforehand, still I am amazed at how fast they are changing. Having children over the age of 3 is a different thing, very different from having a baby or a toddler, and I am just starting to feel that I might be able to combine family life and adventure after all.

I don’t know what I am thinking of specifically. Traveling with them? Or something else? I miss traveling a lot. I miss being out of context, I miss feeling like my days are full of the unexpected and the unfamiliar. We have a lovely time together, the kids and I – we go to the beach and the farm and the frog pond and the park and I think, I am so lucky to be out in the wide world all day with these gorgeous, funny boys! And other times it all feels like a fog of packing sandwiches, keeping them out of poison ivy, changing muddy clothes, bandaids and tick checks, eat your vegetables, cutting toenails, trying to figure out if letting them get that high in the tree makes me laid-back or totally negligent, sitting on the bus and trying to answer, in public, the loudly asked “How could somebody have a baby BY ACCIDENT?”

The frog pond is a favorite destination. In April, the toads were mating en masse, and for weeks afterwards I had to try to explain the scenario to strangers who saw my boys piggy-backing each other and shouting, “we’re mating!” We went back the following week to see the long jellied ropes of toad eggs all around the edge of the pond, and when they turned into tiny tadpoles, we brought some of them home and kept them in a fish tank, feeding them boiled lettuce. J wondered if their mommy-toads missed them, and we told him probably not. It is an efficient if brutal system, to lay hundreds of eggs and then leave them to fend for themselves, going on your froggy way, basically unchanged. We watched them change and grow, from fast-moving little black slivers to creatures with angular heads and glinting, watchful eyes, we watched their back legs emerge like little paddles and then turn into proper froggy legs, and then out came the arms. Their tails started to shrink then, and they climbed up onto the rocks, sat there not eating for a few days, absorbing their tails and turning into little fingernail-sized toads. Then we took them back to the pond and released them, and the grass around the pond was full of hundreds and hundreds of tiny toads, some of them just as big as houseflies.

The boys were interested in the tadpoles, but not nearly as obsessed as I was. Metamorphosis is so weird, when you watch it happening. How they start out as one kind of animal, a little vegetarian swimmer with gills, and then turn into a carnivore with hoppy legs and lungs. Such a total transformation. But I think I can relate a little bit. The boys are changing all the time, but I am changing too. Or: I am changed. Motherhood has turned me into something else and I’m still trying to figure out what. I’m not sure yet what I can do, what my natural element is, what feeds me. And I am also too aware that I am the element my boys live in, to some extent, though that will become less and less true as they get older. I am trying to be a wide green pond free of predators, with plenty of food and plenty of fun, for them. That’s what I’ve been for years now, and I’m trying to remember what it feels like to try to be anything else.

Now life-as-a-parent is opening up, bit by bit, and there is room for me to finish thoughts and books, to plan adventures, embrace the unexpected. I am writing more. I am reading more. I feel like Rip Van Winkle, like I’ve been under for years, but of course it just feels that way, it hasn’t been so long at all, and later I will forget what an eternity it felt like and I’ll say, as all mamas eventually do, that it all goes by so fast. It does, it really does, and also it doesn’t. When I look up, the whole wide world is still there, the bugs sleeping under leaves and the toads in piles around the pond, my children waking in the night full of wonder and unanswerable questions, and me, sleepless but happy and ready, I think I am ready, for whatever comes next.

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