It's time to make dinner and I am sitting on the floor in the kitchen pretending to crack wooden eggs into a colander with my almost two year old child. She likes to play in the pantry while I’m cooking. The good days are when she is content to whip up an imaginary omelette by herself. The hard days are like today when “Mama sit! Mama sit” is really code for “I need you to stop what you’re doing right now and play with me, or I promise, I will go crazy ass Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings" on you.” But… I can’t. My brain is spiraling into a vortex of reasons why I can’t stop: the cats are about to jump on the counter to eat the salmon that I am getting ready to put in the oven. I am tired. I feel like kicking the cat that is circling my leg. I want another glass of wine. I don’t want to make a fake omelette. Your papa will be home in 45 minutes and the house is trashed. Annnd now you’re starting to lose it. Just give me one second. No don’t cry. It’s okay….It’s okay...It’s okay. I’m okay. Breathe. I hate this cat. Dammit! I just spilled sauce on the floor. How do I do this? Why can’t I be more organized? I hate cooking. I can’t do this. Faaaabulous...now you’re doing that crazy Gollum sounding scream because you can’t get the empty spice bottle I gave you to play with open on your own….I am muttering to myself: “I--am--going--to--lose--my--fucking--mind.” Shit. Don’t say “fucking” out loud. She will hear you. Bad mom. Bad mom!
I shove the salmon in the oven and forget about the rest. And that is how I end up on the floor cracking wooden eggs into a colander. Some days its a kitchen dance party to Dora the Explorer or Elmo Slide that keeps both of us from the abyss of toddler meltdowns. Some days, that’s my only cardio.
Today is one of those days. We narrowly avoid falling from the precipice into a full on tantrum. I have cracked enough eggs to amuse. Her interest in playing on her own has been renewed; she just needed me to check in. I may now resume my household duties. I straighten up some of the nearby messes so she can still hear me bustling around her and know that I haven’t gone too far. The clingy stage we are in sometimes feels like a powerful wave pulling me out to a deep part of the ocean where I can’t touch bottom and I am, every moment, in danger of going under.
But the wave is not generated by her need alone. Mixed up in that is my internal chatter. Like all humans, I have my own version of self talk, that inside dialogue that can either build you up or tear you down. In the midst of this momentary calm, the somewhat hostile, hyper critical voice sometimes present inside me begins its litany of comparison with other moms. “Should have let her ‘cry it out.’ Wouldn’t still be so tired; things would have been easier. You’ve made it harder than it needed to be with all your ‘attachment parenting’ choices,” the voice says when I recall wide eyed looks of barely concealed judgment from some who sleep trained their kids. I reflect back on the horror expressed by others over the idea of a family bed, and the voice says,” You’re a sucker, you’ve created a bad habit. You’ll never get her out of your bed now…” Then I start to visualize the disapproving looks from others upon learning that my 21 month old still nurses during the day. I hear that damn voice say, “Shoulda stopped a looooonnnng time ago.” And still another comparison crowds its way in as I recall the moms who say they don’t, and never have felt rage or resentment when their kids cry incessantly--either as babies or toddlers--and they didn’t/don’t know what to do, are exhausted and stressed, discouraged and overwhelmed. The voice chimes in here too, clanging loudly with shame , "Yeah, you suck. Bad mom! Good thing your ass is in therapy!” And so on so forth, down the rabbit hole I go.
Jesus. This “voice” is a stone cold bitch. I think to myself: But...is she right? Is it just harder for me than everyone else because I made the wrong choices? Or are these moms who seem to have it all together--or at least, so much easier--fudging on the truth of what its really like for them? Maybe they just have “easier kids”? Or more help? Why do I care anyway??
That question ushers in another voice, a kinder one. It floats on in and smashes the bitchy judgmental one like Dorothy’s house landing on the Wicked Witch of the West. And suddenly, I have an idea: maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe none of the comparisons matter. This is my experience. Period. I have enough tell-it-like-it-is moms in my life to know that parental experiences and types of kids reflect as much variety as a box of crayolas and beyond. And just like that, the "crazy" passes--at least for the moment-- and I am back to rolling with my little toddler homey.
Pretty soon I am asking myself more important questions like: “What does it mean when the vaudeville style humor of Raffi’s song “Banana Phone” makes me belly laugh?” “It’s a phone with appeal!” he says, a la Groucho Marx in between the upbeat swing of melody. I am heartily guffawing while my child looks on, eyebrows furrowed. “You can have your phone and eat it too!” I’m kinda crying now. It’s one of those laugh/cries that washes a sense of relief and perspective over me until I am breathing easy once more. “This song drives me... bananas!” he persists. “Ring, ring, ring...banana phone…” I friggin love it. I am grateful for how this little tune takes me away from the adult mess in my head and gives me back to Hazel.
These are not easy times. In fact as one cool, vulnerable, validating mom friend recently said to me “these under age 3 years can be ‘dark days’…” Indeed they can be. Not in a sinister way of course. But the level of isolation, too often a hallmark of modern parenting, the anxiety and stress involved in keeping alive a small human who seems to seek out danger with increasing frequency, the exhausting nature of second guessing and general feelings of cluelessness, the harrying, frazzled intensity of toddler emotional development--all of these hard things and more that often accompany this leg of the journey--can weigh heavily on a mama.
But she also encouraged me and said there is “light at the end of the tunnel.” She told me I would never regret the extra time taken, nor the challenges and difficulties associated with some of the attachment parenting choices my husband and I have made. I believe her. I am already looking back over nearly two years of life with Hazel. I feel strangely nostalgic for those early “fourth trimester” days, so marked by the fear and sleep deprivation of a parenting neophyte. Somehow, inexplicably, even the memory of those crazy cluster feeding sessions where all I could do was binge watch "Orange is the New Black" and "Gossip Girl" make me smile with longing. I cry each time I remove clothing from her dresser drawers that no longer fit her ever growing, long lean frame. And each time she sleepily says “hi mama” as I take her into our family bed at night, my stomach and throat are filled with that mysterious kind of heart ache that comes from loving something or someone so much.
I lay next to her, my body curled gently around her, her little hand in mine. The whir of the white noise machine is like a long steady whisper in my ear. The night envelopes my little family with its darkness and I do not fear it or feel weighed down by it. It warms and comforts me, grants me refuge. I cling to it. I don’t ever want to let go.