My children almost did me in this weekend. Sam has been traveling for work quite a bit, and they chose his most recent trip to show off their least lovely selves. This time last spring Duncan was still a newborn, so when Sam traveled Evangeline and I passed the time eating Lo Mein and encouraging Duncan to complete his tummy time on the baby gym. This year, Duncan wants to do everything his big sister does while at the same time keeping me in his line of vision at all times. His desire to take over Evangeline’s dollhouse, her art projects, her “cozy corner” with stuffed animals and books, and tear them to pieces, is traumatic for her, which I recognize. Just as she is beginning to create imaginary worlds that require a sustained attention span and all of her creativity, along comes Hurricane Duncan, intent on playing with his sister on his terms. It helps matters none whatsoever when I ask Evangeline if there is anything – anything at all – that she would consider playing her brother and she answers a resounding NO.
I miss our Lo Mein nights.
The more mobile and verbal Duncan grows, the more attention Evangeline demands. If Duncan decides to show off a new word, rolling ball or dog off his tongue as though they have always been there, or tries to put on his own socks, and Sam and I respond with anything approaching normal parent glee, Evangeline insists on showing off a new dance move or suddenly having a complete meltdown over the fact that the ice in her cup turned to water. With two parents available, it is easy enough to triage these demands, but I’ve been on my own with the kids a lot recently and I find myself resorting to a ridiculous kind of pleading, above what Evangeline is probably emotionally ready to handle.
“Sweetie, look. I know it’s hard to have a little brother – and you are being SO GREAT – but I really need us to all play something together. I’m his mama too and I have to keep him safe,” or “Evangeline! Honey, please. I am doing my best here, but I can’t do everything at once. Do you understand what that means? It means I can’t get you a snack and change Duncan’s diaper in the exact same moment.”
All of this has left me a little emotionally raw, which is probably why I could be found on Sunday slamming my home phone (yes, I still have a home phone -necessary for our alarm system) down repeatedly after a conversation with my parents, who are spending the month in Florida, where they discussed how much my brother and his fiancee were looking forward to their week in Mexico. Because of course they are – of course they are. They work incredibly hard and deserve a vacation but on the other hand – God, I would kill for a vacation, with the kids or without. Sun, sand, surf, boat drinks? I honestly grow teary-eyed at the thought.
I was prepared for a lot when I decided to have kids. Intellectually, I understood the sleep deprivation that it would entail. Financially, I knew that having two children on top of our graduate degrees certainly wouldn’t put us ahead financially for several years. I didn’t over-intellectualize parenting – I just knew I wanted to have kids and figured almost everything else would work itself out. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the possibility that Sam and I, out of all of our siblings, would be the only ones to have children. Across the board, his sisters and my brother have ended up living child-free lifestyles. It’s something I never considered, and while I never had my children under the assumption that others would follow suit, I also didn’t imagine my children growing up cousin-less. I am very close with my second cousins, and one of them has two daughters around Evangeline and Duncan’s age, so my children will develop similar kinds of relationships – that isn’t the problem. What I have noticed, though, is that in our families having children isn’t the norm, and because it’s not, my children are seen and t, reated more as commodities than the tiny little people they are becoming. Growing up, I had just enough cousins to make sure none of us were considered overly-special – there were always some grandkids to have around at Christmas and Thanksgiving – always a play or hockey game or spelling bee to attend. With Evangeline and Duncan, as the only two grandchildren born to the same couple, grandparents begin scheduling holiday visits with us months in advance, and try and reserve our limited vacation time before we even have time to consider what we would like to do. We receive emails about Christmas in July, about our summer vacation plans in January. What are you doing for the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving? Because Sam and I don’t tend to make travel plans terribly far in advance, we often spend what vacation we do have with family which, don’t get me wrong, is mostly great. Frankly we don’t have the funds for elaborate vacations and since we live quite far from family, establishing these relationships is important. But that doesn’t mean it’s not hard, sometimes, to watch our siblings vacation in Vienna, Paris, Mexico, Jamaica – to hear about their impeccable homes, dinners beginning at 9 p.m., and lazy Saturday mornings.
So much has been written about about the difficulties of parenting recently that it’s practically a blogging trend – a backlash, I think, to the Pinterest-perfect, overly optimistic blogs that were more marketing material for cleaning products and Oreos than anything else. So many writers and bloggers were stuffing how great parenting was down our throats that it was refreshing to hear moms write about spit-up covered clothes, sleepless nights, controlled but simmering rage over potty-training (or maybe that’s just me). But I also hoped, when I have my own kids, that I would have something else to say – something more interesting than sanitized joy, more interesting than the difficulty.
It’s hard. Raising young children is hard, but my hard and your hard are probably vastly different. I am equipped with an equilibrium designed to handle meltdowns in grocery stores, yogurt-covered hugs and the 2 a.m. call for water. I am less equipped, however, to manage familial politics and other people’s baggage that they bring to children – no matter how many times I remind myself to be kind and soft and open, I close up in the face of what I perceive as demands on my children when logically I know these demands come from a place of great love. And I am barely equipped at all to handle the hundred heartbreaks my children experience on a daily basis – Evangeline’s devastation when I have to pay attention to her brother instead of her, Duncan’s disappointment when Evangeline’s needs come momentarily first. And I have to work hard, to keep jealousy at bay when it feels like everyone else in the world is vacationing in exotic lands while I scrape spaghetti sauce out of my hair and revisit our budget again.
It’s taken me all week to write this post. Certainly, I write around the corners and edges of my life, so blog posts are never hammered out all at once, but it never takes me an entire week, either. At various times I thought about deleting it – the first paragraph in no way really connects with the ending, and overall it seemed more negative than I usually feel. I am apparently, so generally cheerful that Evangeline grows distraught whenever I am firm or corrective with her – “Put on your happy face! Your normal face!” she yells. “You aren’t my mommy with that face!” But if I didn’t teach her that standing on her brother was wrong, as is pulling the dog’s tail until he yelps, I’d create a little psychopath, and I know she needs the boundaries and rules I set.
But, true to my nature, I’d like to end on this note: this morning, five days after the weekend I thought would kill me, Duncan brought me one of his sister’s Clifford books. They both settled on my lap and we read the entire book without anyone fussing or trying to tear the book apart (I’m looking at you, D-man). The early morning sun brightened Evangeline’s already yellow room and it was a perfect three minutes. It wasn’t a vacation in the Bahamas, but it was enough to soften my heart and open myself to the weekend ahead – a weekend full of possibility, where I may not step on a stray Lego, or end up begging my children for improved behavior instead of guiding it appropriately, where the dishes might end up in the dishwasher instead of under the couch and where I wear my happy face, my normal face, the whole damn time.