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.

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8 thoughts on “

  1. You’ve got to be honest, or else parenting really will kill you. I actually loved this post because I cheer every time a mother lets out some of the banked-up impossible demands you have to juggle every day. You’re doing brilliantly, and anyone who has children knows just how they can push you to the edge. Crikey, I had enough bad moments (alas, still do, the adult problems are no better than the toddler ones, in fact, they can be oddly similar but harder to solve) with just the one child. I know exactly what you mean about family politics. I was so tired I just gave in all the time, and so all our vacations ended up with family involved until our son was ten or so. This, in retrospect, was a very bad idea. You need to find ways to be together as your own unit, and we were horribly delayed doing so.

    I find the older the old part of my family gets, the more they behave like toddlers themselves, and being firm with them is the only way forward. I had to do this via chronic fatigue – less than ideal! I simply could NOT meet everyone’s demands and heaven knows this went down badly. But if I tell you that, you can see how all (grand)parents do this, and how dirty the fight can get if you let it. It comes from a place of love, I just wished to god it ended up on one, too. All this is to say: feel free to alter your focus. At first it will feel selfish, but push those thoughts aside. It’s about survival and staying sane. Because doing only what you can with a lighter heart is much better than giving in to doing all the rest with all the emotions that entails. In any case, you are doing brilliantly.

  2. Yes, you are doing brilliantly. And those early years are so hard, because you feel SO TORN. I felt as if I was in service to everyone’s needs but my own, which made me resentful and not always nice. However, as you describe, there are always those golden moments that make it all worth it. Hugs across the ocean from me.

  3. I had the only grandchild on both sides for a few years, & I got thoroughly sick of all demands & expectations, some of which came from a place of love and others I still feel were selfish and insensitive. eg. Sulking and sniping because I wouldn’t wake up a sick toddler with a temperature who was finally getting some sleep after vomiting all night for a grandparent visit. This, after I had been up all night & spent the morning washing sheets plus baking and tidying for the visit. I think some grandparents are so focused on their ideal that they have forgotten how physically demanding young kids can be on the parents & they forget kids aren’t dolls but need naps and get grumpy, sick etc.

    I found it very difficult. It is important kids have relationships with their extended family, & you can’t have too much love, so I have bitten my tongue & gone along with a lot more extended family time than I really wanted for myself. One thing that helped was as my daughter got older I carved out some time for us by making travel arrangements very, very far in advance so as to just not be available at all times. Its easier to set a boundary if you have a firm alternative commitment. I tried and tried to explain, in non hurtful ways, the need to have some space, not all the time, but sometimes, & it never seemed to work half as well as an oh sorry we’ve booked & paid to go to X at Easter but of course we’ll see you at…Y’s birthday. We’ ve reached a reasonable equilibrium over the last couple of years but as we approach the teenage years I feel the balance is about to shift again and I’m sure that’s going to bring its own challenges. 😟

    Anyway, to, dr- about trying to meet everyone’s needs. Yours matter too. Remember the oxygen mask in aircraft safety. You put it on yourself first.

  4. Hang in there, you’re doing great! (and I know you’ve got your birthday coming up, so I hope you can have a little break and enjoy your day with a little well-earned selfish self-care!)
    What my hubby said a while ago when we were in the middle of those quandaries, is that being the one with grandkids gives you actual bargaining power with the grandparents. You want to see your grandkids? Then you have to do it on our terms, at the date we choose. If they prefer their childfree lifestyle, well good for them, but it’s just unfair to flaunt it in your face. I know how hard it is to navigate this all every day. Wishing you “bon courage”!

  5. I love this post – so true, so reassuring that it’s not just L and I that are buckling under the pressure. To give you an idea, it’s taken me 4 days just to leave a comment. It sounds like you are doing wonderfully well under very trying circumstances. And I can relate on so many levels. About the impossible demands of parenting (often by oneself since partner is working) and at the same time managing aging parents and difficult siblings. No one warned me about all the bodily fluids that go with parenting. And the whining and the crying and the incredible selfishness. I know it’s age-appropriate but it’s so difficult accepting complete self-absorption from my 4-year old child when I am sick (and tired and barely functioning at times). I wish I could document these times as well as you. It will be great to have a record to look back on in years to come.

  6. That dynamic you write about between siblings is so familiar to me. My son is just finally saying things, trying to put on his socks, attempting to get the spoon to his mouth with a little food on it. We praise him for his attempts and my daughter is immediately, on the heals of our “great job” making sure we take note of her bite, or let her know that she can put on her socks or reminding us that she can say a thousand more words than her brother.

    I get it, I really do, and yet it drives me crazy because all I can think is, YOU GOT THIS AND NO ONE ELSE WAS AROUND! We said these things to you and no one jumped in to steal your thunder and distract us away from what you were doing. Your brother will never have that and you had it for 3.5 years.

    But that is exactly why it’s so hard for her. She had that and now it’s gone and she misses it something fierce. It’s very hard for her.

    And then she locks herself in her room and he slams himself against the gate, wailing, and I stand in the kitchen shoving chocolate chips into my mouth, wondering when it will just hurry up and be bedtime already…

  7. Litlove – what wise words! I think we really do need to find our own family focus. Part of the problem is we live so far away from any family – it really makes it difficult to balance vacation and family time because it takes two days by car to get anywhere close to our families! But the demands are really wearing on us and we have to find a solution.

  8. Charlotte – I feel your hugs – I feel them! Thanks for your support. that’s exactly it – I feel like I have maybe 30 minutes a day to address any of my own needs and as much as I understand why, emotionally it’s not always easy to handle!

    Ms. Make Tea – THIS. EXACTLY. All the grandparents (and frankly, aunts and uncles) treat my kids like dolls to do their bidding and not like little people who need food and sleep and time to blow off steam. They are completely wrapped up in the ideal, not the reality, and it drives me bonkers. I’ve got to learn to set some limits.

    Smithereens – I know your husband is right. It’s not natural for me to think that way necessarily but some of these people have to pony up and start meeting us on our terms – the complexities of traveling with two little ones is enormous!

    Pete – oh, the bodily fluids! Duncan is also in a really awful feeding stage where he only eats if he can feed himself but the food gets EVERYWHERE – it’s disgusting and I’m constantly changing clothes. A more severe mother would probably not even allow him to feed himself but me? Ah. Hugs from the trenches, my friends – I know our kids are terribly close in age – sometimes I just remind myself how GREAT ages 5 and 8 are going to be!

    Naomi – welcome! thanks for your comment and insight – it sounds like our kids are spaced approximately the same. I feel so badly for Duncan – he is going to be on the receiving end of all of our attention when he is in high school – which is probably just as well but yeah, i feel badly his triumphs get lost in Evangeline. It’s a tough balance.

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