Remember how I was supposed to get my taxes done, get a big refund check and then spend the whole thing on summer camps for the kids, so I wouldn’t lose my mind? Yeah, now I remember too. Because I’m just now coming out of a depression that descended upon me about six weeks ago, when we hit Day Ten of no school, and I had apparently already reached my limit.
I do this every time. Every long weekend, every holiday break, every school release day, every summer. I overestimate my ability/desire/capacity to spend all the live-long day with the second-grader and the kindergartner. And I fail to sign them up for sufficient time with Other Responsible Adults. Which on more than one occasion has contributed to a loss of life balance which then smoothly paves the way toward the downward spiral of depression. Why? you ask yourself. Why do you keep doing this when surely you know better by now?
Aside from the obvious, which is that I’m indecisive, prone to procrastination, and have deep ambivalence over my need to use child-care of any sort, I tell myself this time will be different. The kids are older, now. They’re at that “fun age.” (Note this is always said by people with much older children, people with amnesia.) You’re in a better place. You don’t like structure and schedules and running them to a bunch of activities. You’ll have a relaxing, kick-back summer with the kids.
I tell myself, you’ll do crafts, go on nature walks, go for donuts at The Bakers’ Wife. You’ll play four-square, jump rope, build the fairy garden, walk down to the creek, or the playground. Watch a little morning television. You’ll have a lemonade stand, go to garage sales, or the kindergartner’s favorite: “take a walk around the block and and see what’s going on in the neighborhood.” Hell, you’ll just bask in the ability to walk outside without a coat on and sit in the grass for a change!
Well, guess what you forgot? You forgot that the kindergartner can sustain interest in each of these things for no more than five to seven minutes, and because he also wakes up before 6 a.m. most days, you already did ALL of these things, and it’s still not even lunchtime. (Here’s where you imagine the movie version of the above paragraph, a hokey montage of all of the fun summer activities happening in succession, to show the passing of time, only: time was not really passing!! It happened all in one morning!) You still have 10 weeks of summer to go!! Crap!!
You also forgot that the second-grader is largely a homebody like you, while the kindergartner is, like his father, built with a “bias for action” which means he needs to go, go, go! Go, Dog, Go! And Go! You must!
And not only do you not feel like going anywhere, neither does the second-grader, so you need to ignore both her whiny protests and your own and be a cheerleader for the troops and act like this is going to be Fun for the Whole Family even though, like the second-grader, you would rather stay in your pajamas and play Legos. Or simply putter about the house, throw in a load of laundry here and there, relax on the sunporch, listen to the water fountain with a cup of coffee, flip through the Southwest Journal, maybe wander out to the yard (the real outside) to water a few pots after awhile.
But instead you find yourself marching two bickering children out to the car, not even sure where you’re headed, just knowing you need to get the hell out of the house. Because the kindergartner is starting to wreck stuff. And your day is only heading downhill from here.
You also forgot that you don’t enjoy preparing meals, especially so many meals each and every day, and that the kindergartner and the second-grader don’t like to eat the same things, so it’s like preparing six different ones, not just three. Also, you yourself are bad at remembering to eat, so when you do realize you are hungry you’re already famished and feel as if you need to put the oxygen mask over your own face before you can take care of their needs, and that makes you feel like a bad mother for feeding them second.
Essentially, you fail at responsibility. The only reason this stay-at-home-mom gig ever works for you is because for so many months they are at school all day, and you can and do manage the couple hours in the morning (because your husband packs the lunches) and the couple hours after school (because your husband will be home soon to take over, and to make dinner). I know you’re probably thinking, “What the hell?” What does she do all day? It’s not like she has a job. It’s not like her house is spotless, or she even really cooks.” I know. I ask myself the same thing. All the time.
During the school year, I do a little writing, I find junk in the alley and bring it home with good intentions to fix it up. I sometimes meet a friend for a walk around the lake. I read books. I contemplate life. I follow signs that say “estate sale” or “garage sale.” I read through The Loft Course Offerings. Occasionally, I have lunch with friends, volunteer in the kids’ classrooms, even take a nap (especially when it rains).
I go through cycles, creatively speaking, sometimes knitting, or sewing, or building stuff out of wood, refinishing a wicker sectional for the screen porch, sewing cushion covers. I practice drawing, or learn some new guitar chords. Sometimes I phone a brother, or my sister, or my mother-in-law.
I also occasionally get bored, or worry that I should really be looking for a job. So I can make a contribution to the family. I feel guilty, sometimes, that I am not making a bigger contribution to the world. I vow to be more compassionate, to have more genuine connections with people, to not be so “earning money and productivity” focused, to try to use a different yardstick to measure my life. I try not to feel guilty that I have so many good things, and I wonder about how to find gratitude when I’m feeling envious of other people’s close-knit families or in-town grandmas and grandpas, and how to see the beauty in the ordinary, every day moments. Because that’s all there ever really is, and if you’re holding out for something extraordinary or grand or large, you will surely miss a lot of good.
If I’m doing anything on the computer, I will often stumble upon pictures of the kindergartner and second grader, or even better, video of them, and remember how little their voices were just a short time ago. And I feel deep pangs of missing them.
The first day this summer when the kindergartner was at Minneapolis Kids and the second grader’s being home all day was still fresh and new (and she wasn’t having a super talky day), I said to her, “It’s so different without our boy here, isn’t it?” “Yeah,”she replied thoughtfully. She was building one of her many Lego montages, this one involving Batman and Robin and friends preparing to compete at the Pillsbury Bake-Off, apparently being held in Gotham City this year. “It’s so nice. It’s so peaceful.” Yes it is. Manageable, and peaceful.
But still, I missed him. And herein lies the dilemma, of course. The kids drive me up a tree most of the time, yet when they have been gone for like 20 minutes, I miss the hell out of them. (And then they return, and the cycle repeats. Sigh.) I also run toward the melancholic, so all the sappy things like the Subaru ad where the Chocolate Lab (Farley!) goes from puppy to old timer, and other poignant songs and images and moments that stand for the relentless passing of time run through my head in a continuous loop. And there is my own mom’s gentle voice echoing, they grow so fast.
And later, speaking of the process of raising four children only to watch each of us in succession pack up our belongings and head off to college (each of our departures unique, and with varying degrees of “all-at-once-ness”, but still, each of us gone in a way that was, as would become clear only in retrospect, in fact final), my mother summed it up with a wry smile, and these words:
Just when they get interesting, they leave.
An indication, or perhaps an obvious admission that, while her love for her children was deep and without question, she found grownups a bit more interesting to be around. And though she would never say so directly, maybe she too found it difficult to spend long stretches of time at home, “raising children.”
I know I need to drink in these days, these summers with my kids while they are here, because they surely will not last. And I am continually frustrated by my inability to appreciate the here and now. To simply be here now. And I’m reminded once again of one of my own dad’s favorite sayings, which he would no doubt offer up here if he were able: “Life is too much, and too little.” Maybe accepting that is my real work here.