The interesting thing about being a mother is that everyone wants pets, but no one but me cleans the kitty litter. - Meryl Streep
My 11-year-old daughter, Haley is playing Jingle Bells on the piano. It's been less than a week since the girls schlepped their backpacks home stuffed with months of worksheets, book reports quizzes, science projects, a clay pinch-pot (penny holder? soap dish?), and a smashed cupcake from the last-day-of-school party.
There are no buses to catch this morning and at 9:00 a.m. they're still in pj's.
Sydney, my almost 15-year-old daughter sits eating at the breakfast table, but her steady, methodical routine is disrupted by the percussive volume coming from the front room. Sydney, who has Down syndrome, is sensitive to sensory input, and her sister's over-the-top decibel level renders her nearly unable to enjoy her cereal. As for me, I can't even hear myself think.
"Haley!" I yell, "It's June, for heaven's sake. Play something else." Sending my grandmother's antique piano stool spinning, she jumps off and comes sliding into the kitchen.
"I've got the Power!" she sings loudly, growling the word power and adding a kick and a punch for emphasis.
Dancing around and under my feet as I move from fridge to sink to coffee pot, she belts, "I've got the Power! I've got the Power! I've got the Power! I've got the POWER!"
Where she heard the 1990 Eurodance hit by Snap! I do not know, but she's got the hook line down.
"Ha-ley. You're annoying me." Sydney says quietly. "Your . . . singing. You are, you are giving me . . . a headache."
"I've got the Power! I've got the Power! I've got the Pow-ow-ow-ow-er!" Haley scoots undeterred out of the room. Sydney sighs and slaps her forehead.
In preparation for summer fun with my girls, I cut back my hours at my job, figuring I could work some from home and still have time to indulge in all the recreation we'd been missing.
My fantasies consisted of less routine and more freedom, less busy-ness and more time together, less time spent working and a whole lot more spent playing. But that was before summer actually started.
You'd think I would know better by now. This ain't my first rodeo. With two older kids, 29 and 27, grown and long out of the house, I've had plenty of practice at navigating summer vacation. Truth be told, I am a psychotic mommy; a June Cleaver meets Joan Crawford version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The fact that only my children are capable of triggering this instantaneous shape-shifting is oddly comforting and disturbing at the same time.
My youngest, in particular, with her brilliant mind and astounding zest for life, pushes my buttons, and is (coincidentally?), like me; multi-dimensional. Living with ADHD, she is challenged by impulsivity, inattention and hyperactivity. While Sydney needs time to process, lots of repetition and a slower pace, her sister needs fast-paced stimulation, a high level of structure and detailed feedback.
Living with Haley is like living inside a pinball machine; a jarring barrage of sounds, words and thoughts. Continually absorbing her environment, what she takes in, she remembers forever after. When she was 5 she said, "I have a camera in my head," a perfect way to describe her photographic memory. Her brain fires rapidly and her mouth interpolates a running narrative.
"How do you make your own fossil?"
"Is wood a plant?"
"Why do we say 9 'oh' 4 instead of 9 'zero' 4?"
"Are there questions scientists can't answer?"
"What's bigger, galaxies or the universe?"
"What about a 'multi'-verse?"
Incessant, perpetual, talking, questioning, exploring and exclaiming, Haley is compressed energy.
Sydney tries to interject between the words, but it takes her longer to get her sentences out, "Um, Mom? Mom? Um, am I going to Camp Barnabas on June 17th?"
"Yes," I answer for the 700th time, "you are."
Sydney is needy for attention because her sister commands it all.
"Ha-ley! Stop! Mom, I didn't get to talk. She's talking across me."
Managing the lives of not one, but two, children with special needs--diametrically opposing needs, and talents--has made me the crazy mom I am today.
I vow this summer will be different. This summer I will NOT find myself turning green and ripping my clothing to shreds.
But, I need a plan. If, when putting away freshly folded laundry in the girls' bathroom, I find mildewing towels on the floor piled on top of discarded dirty clothes, globs of toothpaste on the counter, and a specimen floating in an un-flushed toilet bowl, I will pause. If I sense the start of a familiar chemical reaction, the adrenaline surge through my body that threatens an uncontrollable urge to scream until my throat is raw, I need to STOP. I need to Breeeeeeeathe. I need to Stay. In. Control.
But, how? That is the million-dollar question.
Being with my kids 24/7 reminds me that there is only one time they drive me nuts, and that's when I'm with them 24/7.
One strategy is to keep moving, to keep us booked solid, day after day and frequently into the nights. My Google calendar loads up, the pretty colorful blocks of appointments and events and practices and play dates filling up each day. Keep moving. Yesterday we made it to swim practice (almost on time), picked up milk, dish soap and a birthday present at the store, had a friend over to play and went to the library. I managed to get dressed, but I think I forgot to brush my teeth. I can't stop or even slow the pace of our doing, because, at that moment, sensing weakness, they will circle for the kill. Channeling Dori, my mind repeats, 'just keep swimming, just keep swimming.'
Realistically, though I can't keep up that kind of pace and honestly, I don't want to. I crave down-time and I will get it, even if it's forced on me by exhaustion. And they need down-time, too. Relaxing at the pool seems the perfect strategy. The kids can swim and Mommy can lie in the sun; it's a win-win! However, another mother has messed with my plans this year; Mother Nature.
It's been a cold, rainy spring in Mid-Missouri but despite the temperatures and weather alerts for thunderstorms, floods, and even a tornado watch, swim team practice has been held. The little troopers sit at the edge of the pool, shivering and hugging themselves; their lips blue, teeth chattering. The other day the sun broke through the clouds for 5 glorious minutes, then, a crack of thunder, and down came the rain. Again.
My last and best strategy is to simply let go. Surrender. Give in, but not give up. Go with the flow.
Flexibility is the mother's F-word.
It feels like a relief to embrace the fact that things won't go as I've planned. There's an elusive truth somewhere in the back of my mind waiting to hand me the key to the best summer yet. Like I said, I should know better by now, and maybe I actually do.
As I renegotiate my expectations, time for myself mustn't be excluded; the wise woman in me says, 'neglect your own needs repeatedly, dismissively, and mercilessly and, without fail, you will crash and burn.' Prioritizing time alone is worth any effort it takes. Plus, my pampered princesses need to learn that everything is not always about them; that their desires need to be balanced with others', including their beloved mother. And for me, space from my little darlings can be the difference between me being SuperMom or Mommy Dearest, the difference between me merely surviving the summer or relishing it.
My house won't be as clean, the to-do list won't get checked off, but I'll be rested and happy and appreciating my children, who won't ever be this young again.
I notice the singing has stopped. Suspicious, I look up from the email I'm working on to see Haley coming towards me.
"Mom, can I borrow your kickboxing wraps to make something?"
Because of her tendency to rip through drawers, closets, and cupboards, leaving destruction in her wake, she has been told and warned and threatened to ask permission before she commences digging.
"Okay," I say, looking back to my computer, "but only one pair."
As she starts to move, I look up at her, peering over my reading glasses, "And I will get them for you."
Sheepishly, she says, "I already got them."
She lifts her whole leg and sets her heel heavily on the coffee table, revealing a makeshift cast, my white wraps wound and Velcro-ed over her foot, around her ankle and all the way up to her knee.
"I broke my tibula and fibula. Can you show me how to limp?"
Eventually, the sun has to come out, right?