For the first time in an age, I’m alone in a house filled with silence. Well, almost alone. My husband is “at work” upstairs. Employing quotes implies that he isn’t actually working. He is.
I cannot hear My Little Pony playing on the TV downstairs. I cannot hear my son humming repetitively under his breath while he concentrates on something. I cannot hear the sound of my daughter’s foghorn flute voice asking me for a cup of water/a snack/a show/another snack/help/a sweater/clean socks/a cookie/screentime/playtime.
I cannot hear my children because they are at school. And lo, the children did returneth to school, and the parents across the land rejoiced.
I am alone with my thoughts. Exciting as they are. Last year, I asked a friend, a stay-at-home mum to three, what she was going to do now that her kids were all in school. She thought for a minute, and then said, “I’m going to think really long thoughts.”
So I’m sitting in the dining-room, thinking long, uninterrupted thoughts.
Over the last six months, the kids and I have filled the school-less days with many, many things. Games. Outdoor time. Puzzles. Artwork. Eating. Baking. Eating the Baking. Cleaning. Making Messes. Cleaning Again.
I recognize that there is an element of good fortune in not having a proper job to try to maintain. My job for the past half year has been to manage my kids and keep them happy and occupied in the weird post-COVID world we inhabit. And to keep them away from the office door because, Shhhhhh, Daddy’s on a call!!
I say “them” but really it’s my daughter who must be shushed. There are definite advantages to having a child who is a born talker. There are disadvantages too. I’d break it down like this:
Pros: Eloquent. Expresses self. Often hilarious. Strong debating skills.
Cons: Rarely quiet. (See my post Movie Kids.) Talks over the top of people. Interrupts.
When I get irritated with her for sending my train of thought skittering off the tracks, I have to remind myself that she’s probably destined for a luminous career in law or stand-up comedy.
It’s so quiet in here that I can hear the clock ticking.
A few years back, I promised my son that we would get a cat, because, “everyone else” had a pet, except for us.
And then, no further action was taken. Together, the Bean and I often looked at cat profiles on rescue sites, and wondered if Fluffysocks or Martin were the cats for us. Despite saying that we would get a cat, I couldn’t take action on it, because, frankly, I just couldn’t imagine another thing that needed ME to keep it fed and alive.
On occasion, someone would ask us if we owned a pet, and my son would answer with eternal optimism, “No, but we’re getting a cat soon.” And I would feel guilty and write the item “Get Cat” on my current To-Do List.
Then in November, I spotted a litter of kittens that needed homes on a local rescue site. I sent an email, and within a couple of hours was on the phone with the woman who was fostering the cats. She told me she had named all of the kittens after chocolate bars.
And that’s how Snickers and Mr. Big entered our lives.
Snickers is a snuggly, black-and-white tuxedo. Mr. Big is the ginger with the personality to match. These brothers have kept us on our toes since the day they arrived, providing endless amusement with their shenanigans.
Okay, there have been some stressful moments, as when I caught Big playing with a button battery, and when I found myself Googling “plants toxic to cats.” And discovered that most of our plants are indeed, toxic to cats.
Despite the extra work and the demise of my leather furniture, these kitties have brought some much-needed fun and cuteness into the house, at a time that we were beginning to feel that things couldn’t get much worse.
Yes, I’m now a crazy cat-lady who shows pictures of my kittens to random people on the street. If you want to see more pics, these tech-savvy dudes have started their own Instagram account.
At that time, we lived on a dead-end street, in a small town in New York. The kids of Concord Avenue all played together, that last generation of 70s and 80s kids who got to do stuff without constant adult supervision.
We meandered through secret backyard paths and built forts amongst rhododendron bushes. We knew the names of the neighbourhood dogs: Sugarfoot, Snowball. We went to the playground at the end of our street, alone, the littler ones supervised by the not-much-older ones.
One day, someone had the brilliant idea to attach a metal wagon to the back of a bike with a length of rope, and take turns pulling each other in it.
I remember sitting in the back of the wagon, probably the smallest child there, as one of the older kids, Alex, pedalled like a spin-class junkie, with me yelling “Faster!” while the wagon fish-tailed. I remember gripping the metal sides of the red wagon, and then the moment of horrified anticipation as the left-side wheels tipped up once, then twice, then completely, spilling me out headfirst onto the road.
The moment of impact is gone from memory, head hitting concrete and the left side of my body leaving layers of epidermis behind. I do remember the screams of the other kids, rushing off to my house to tell my mother. I’m sure my brother helped me hobble home, though I don’t remember that either.
I do remember sobbing as bits of road grit were washed away and bandages applied. I don’t remember vomiting or driving to the hospital, but those things happened.
I do remember being in emerg. Alarming images float up, of staff wrestling a man, wild and flailing, whom I learned a long time later was drunk, according to my mother.
There is the face of a brisk nurse who made me cry by briskly ripping of all of my Band-Aids, as my mother protested.
“Ma’am, I have to inspect the wounds,” she said. My mother didn’t explain to me for many years why a nurse might have to inspect a child’s wounds in the ER.
And lastly, I remember the reflection of my small face in some kind of mirror above me as I lay still to have my head X-rayed. There were no long-term consequences of that accident. It became one of my childhood stories, an amusing one. Kids, you know!
Last Monday I found myself in the ER with my Lark. The day had dawned grim for me, a day in which I couldn’t shift my mood from cranky to light.
I made plans to meet friends at one of our local parks. Lark and I were on our own, with the other half of our family 15,000 km away in Australia.
We’ll get out of the house, I thought. The day will get better.
But, when the time came to go, Lark, who is mostly pretty agreeable, suddenly refused to agree. With an epic stubbornness, she flatly refused to come to the park. She didn’t want to go to that park, she only wanted to go to a different park, one that I don’t enjoy much. (I once wrote about how disappointing this particular park was to me when renovated, here.)
I cajoled, bribed, and threatened, but she wouldn’t budge. So, with me in a bit of a sulk, we set off for her parkette of choice, and I texted our friends that we weren’t coming.
As soon as we got there, Lark immediately began climbing around on top of the climbing structure. This is something that all of the older kids do there, because this newer piece of playground equipment was designed to be “safe” and therefore is only two feet from the ground.
Please come down from up there, I said sternly. Not once, not twice, but several times.
Now, over the years, I have flown my parenting helicopter with extreme precision. I’ve been ready to swoop in and rescue. I don’t say this because I’m proud of it, it’s just a fact that I’ve had a very hard time watching my oldest, Bean, get hurt, because he has already suffered enough. So I’ve been watchful, ready, on high-alert.
That day though, my helicopter crashed. I was tired and in a bad mood and irritated that Lark wouldn’t stop clambering around where she wasn’t supposed to be.
As I stood only a foot away from her, I watched her climb up, lose her balance, catch at something on the way down, and then slam down on her face on the steps of the climber.
Horrified, I scooped her up while she wailed. Bruises appeared on her temple.
A mum friend from the area was nearby to help. She had an ice pack and relevant head-injury advice. I mumbled that I wished I’d been just a step closer to catch her. She said something along the lines of, If you were always there to catch her, she would never learn the consequences of her actions.
That is truth, right there. Although, it can be so hard to watch our children make mistakes, and be injured.
If I hadn’t fallen out of the wagon, I wouldn’t have learned that it’s probably not a good idea to ride in a vehicle attached to a bike by a bit of rope.
Lark has now learned that you shouldn’t climb on top of things that you have neither a firm grip on nor sturdy footing below.
She stopped crying and I carried her home. On the couch, she fell asleep and was difficult to wake. She woke and barfed. So, with a big sigh, we headed off to Sick Kids. We stayed in emerg. for about 6 hours. Doctors looked at her, we talked about imaging. She threw up again. She slept again.
And then she woke up. She picked up her markers and began colouring and making demands for food. She ate many snacks and chatted with a volunteer who I flagged down to help. She got out of bed and literally skipped down the hall. So we went home, and that’s the end of the story.
A few months ago, there was a night, like most nights, when I lay in bed with my four-year-old, Lark, snuggling her as she prepared to drift off to sleep. All parents know these moments, that fill you with such a fierce, protective, animal joy. Whispering, sharing dreamtime thoughts. As I tried to get her to settle down, I was fending off licks because she was also pretending to be a kitten.
At times my daughter seems to have the magic power of divining my thoughts. As we lay together in the darkness, I was brooding about Jess, the young woman who had been abandoned by her family when she was at her most needy and vulnerable. Just the day before, I had watched Episode 5 of Queer Eye. (see my previous post)
Out of the blue, my Lark piped up, voice small and disconsolate, “Mum, I would be very very sad if you gave me away.”
“I would never, ever give you away my sweet baby,” I said. “You are my beautiful child and I will love you forever.”
We were quiet for a moment. I was thinking of the long, hard struggle I’d gone through just to have this sky-rocket child in my life. About what a supreme gift it feels like to be her mother.
“Will you love me forever, even when I’m a grown-up?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said. “Even when you’re a grown-up. You will always be my baby.”
“Good,” she said. “Because I never want to leave you and I want to live with you forever in your house.”
I’ve been around this parenting block a few times, so I know that small children believe with utter conviction that they’ll want to live with their parents for the rest of their lives, even when they’re adults. I don’t want to disabuse my darlings of this notion, but I suspect that by the time they are 18, they’ll be ready to fly the coop.
“That’s fine. Of course you can live with us,” I told her with a kiss, but she had turned back into a kitten again and kept trying to lick me.
After escaping and leaving her to sleep, I felt thoughtful, her little question, Will you love me forever, even when I’m a grown-up? replaying over and over in a loop.
That is what the human condition boils down to. Will I always be loved? I want to be loved and accepted. First, we seek to be sure of that love and acceptance from our family members, and then when we are older, we cast the net wider, and seek it from friends and partners. And if at some point, we lose that love and that safety, we lose our sense of self in the world.
If you ask any parent, they will tell you that their biggest fear is losing their children. I live with the unfortunate and realistic fear that both of my children will get brain tumours, but I’ve somehow had to come to grips with the possibility of that loss, and live our life with as much grace as I can muster with daily, hourly, minutely gratitude that it is MY privilege to be their mother in this life.
Part of my gratitude towards them is acceptance. I work to accept them for who they are, with their likes and dislikes, which may not always align with my own. I accept them for their strengths and for their flaws. And I always let them know that FIRSTLY they are loved, and that when we hit roadblocks, we’ll find a way to overcome and muddle through together.
And when I fuck up, which I do, often, I ask for their forgiveness, so they can see me owning my mistakes and moving on.
So I will love them when they make poor choices, like an ill-considered hair colour or gawd-awful tattoo. And I’ll champion them when they make good choices that lead to their success and happiness. And I’ll love them when they are acting awful and being completely self-absorbed, which they do, and they will, because they’re humans.
Love, compassion, gratitude and acceptance first. And the rest will fall into place.
I am stuck in that parenting doldrum where I spend way too much of my time negotiating. And coaxing. And convincing. And bribing. The four year old, obviously. The 10 year old is currently in the golden tween age of parental cooperation.
This, to my mind, is one of the biggest drawbacks of parenting, trying to “make” a kid do something that they don’t want to do. And in the process, realizing, with that sinking sense of futility, that it’s f*****g impossible to force a small human to do things that they don’t want to do. You can’t “make” them eat healthy food. Nor can you “make” them go to bed, or get in their car seat, or keep walking, or put on their socks, or stop talking when you require quiet right now.
In the halcyon days, pre-kid, you might imagine your future life as a parent, with well-behaved little people scampering off to bed, eating everything on their plates at dinner, and not relentlessly demanding one more episode of Paw Patrol. You would never have been able to imagine the constant arguing, manoeuvering and strategizing that goes on to make the train stay on the tracks every single day.
Famously, when Craig and I had no offspring, we spent a day hanging with some friends and their kids. The kiddos were acting up, total shenanigans, not listening. The usual stuff. After they left, during the debrief, I remember Craig saying something like, “No kid of mine will ever blah blah and nor will I tolerate that kind of blah blah.” And I was like, “Agreed!” Fast forward a few years and zero in on us quietly eating our words.
Neither of us had ever spent a lot of real time with real children since we were children. Maybe both of us had been unduly influenced by…. movie kids. What are movie kids, you ask? Just that. Kids that appear in movies, and on television shows. Kids that are docile and totally, totally compliant. Kids that don’t write their own dialogue. Kids that run off and play so that the main characters can talk quietly.
Appearances of movie kids go something like this:
Mom and Dad need to have an important conversation. Two kids enter the room, perfectly groomed, and sit at the table for a minute or two. They only say things in response to what their parents have said. Then one parent says, “Sweetheart, Mommy and Daddy need to have an important conversation, can you guys go do your homework?”
“Sure, Mom,” says the older kid. “C’mon!” And taking l’il sis by the hand, they quietly leave the room. Never to be seen or heard from again.
In the movies, when adults need quiet or alone time, kids are quiet and leave them alone. For obvious reasons. We wouldn’t want to watch a movie where the witty dialogue was interrupted several hundred times by requests for juice boxes or complaints that a sibling has “stolen my spot” on the couch. We don’t want art to imitate life that much.
One of the (many) things that my daughter doesn’t want to do is be quiet. Lark is a super-expressive, but very noisy child.
Last Sunday, Craig and I needed to have a conversation. Not an important one. We were talking about groceries. I was sitting at the kitchen counter, pen in hand and trying to make a list, while he went through fridge and cupboards, checking our supplies. Lark was also in the room. Unfortunately, she didn’t want us to be doing what we were doing. She decided to call upon all of her powers of annoyance to stop us from having this conversation.
Mummy I just need someone to do something with me. Mum, don’t do this now. Don’t talk to Daddy. I need you. I need Mum. Loona. Loona. Loona-do. This is boring. I just want to watch something on Netflix. I want to watch just one episode. Can you turn on the TV for me? Muuuuum. Muuuuum. Stop talking to Daddy. Please. I need you.
Over the top of this continuous loop, our conversation went like this.
C: We need more cashews. E: What did you say? (Trying to unwrap Lark from my leg.) C: I said, cashews. E: Lark, please be quiet, I can't hear what Daddy is saying. L: (Kicking the bottom of my stool with her feet) Muuuum. I don't want you to do this. I'm so so so bored. I want to do something with yooooooouuuu.
Unfortunately, I can’t make her be quiet. I can ask her to be quiet. I can plead with her. I can coax, threaten and bribe. I can do many things, but I can’t make.