That morning started out like all other mornings; I woke up, for better or worse, on my own side of the bed, 5-year-old feet wedged uncompromisingly in the small of my back and 2-year-old full body scrambling to climb onto my head, her diaper reeking of stale pee.
At breakfast I labored to fully open my eyes, wrapped around my cup of coffee, ignoring screams and crashes from the other room, just breathing the steam, hoping for more caffeine to enter my bloodstream through the vapor.
I couldn't get the kids motivated to get out of the house. "Park? Zoo? Library?" I tried. "No!" they yelled to each suggestion, as they ran by me, naked for some reason, in pursuit of the bedraggled cat. Their giggles felt like knives in my ears; the unchained chaos threatened to suffocate me. "Let's make cookies!" I hollered at them as they thumped around upstairs, laughing hysterically. "I'm getting the cookie cutters out! Come down!"
Thus began attempt after attempt to tame their madness, thwarted by every scream, every demand, every mess. I didn't know where my bad mood was coming from; things that normally didn't bother me were grating on my nerves. I felt like a drowning person, too exhausted even to yell at them, but too frustrated to give up and sit down with a book or something. I couldn't take their kid-ness that day. I made them get dressed, very much against their wills, and on a whim I took them out for pizza.
It was cold and gray, and the bell tinkled as we came in, echoing in the empty restaurant. A reluctant server came over and I ordered wine. It was 11:30 a.m.
I looked across the booth at my children. Still slightly giggly but no longer roughhousing, excited about pizza, playing with cold dough from the kitchen, they were every single thing to me. All it took to regroup was a second to just be still and look at them. And all they know is what they have. They don't know that someone else might have it better or worse than they do. They don't know there are children whose parents abuse and neglect, children who are hungry, children who have never stepped foot in a warm pizza cafe on a cold afternoon. They don't know that there are mothers at the table next to us, or down the block, or across the world who aren't having a day of struggle, a day when their children's every breath feels like a burden to be dealt with. They didn't know that their own mother was having that day. Those four deep brown eyes weren't the least bit judgmental, and I was filled with regret at the way I'd treated them all morning. "I'm sorry I'm so grumpy today," I sighed. "I love you guys." I got silence from the toddler, and a snarky nonsensical comment from the 5-year-old, but it didn't matter. For the moment I was standing on dry ground, my head clear, my chest light.
By evening I was grumpy again. I had to take the kids with me to the grocery store after naps, and they were full of pent-up energy from days of cold drizzle and playing indoors. The aisles at the supermarket were wide open spaces, inviting my children to run free, be feral, and I followed them around apologizing and cleaning up the damage they left in their wake.
I was crying by the time we left. It wasn't that my kids were behaving any differently than they ever did, or doing anything particularly dangerous or upsetting. They were being annoying, sure, but they're five and two. That's like, their job, and they do it well. Annoyances don't typically bring me to tears, anymore than daily frustrations typically make me feel like I'm standing in sinking sand, anymore than I typically order a glass of wine when it's just the kids and me for lunch.
Someone called my name from across the parking lot, and I turned to see a dear friend's cheerful smile. It was enough to undo me entirely, and I hugged her tightly like she was a life raft, hearing myself confess to her that I was having a rough day, that I was being mean to my kids, that I must have been about to start my period, that I didn't even know what was wrong. She gave me another hug and we parted with reassurances that it happens to all of us.
It felt good. I needed to see a real person, another mother, someone who could remind me that I wasn't some sort of lonely parental island. I sat in my car with the heater on, gulping the warm oxygen, my two confused loves waiting patiently in their car seats for their crazy mother to move them to the next adventure or chore. "I'm okay," I whispered to myself. "I'm going to be okay."
That night I tucked my children in bed while their dad read to them, taking the time to kiss their soft cheeks and stroke their fine hair and feel their tiny, chubby hands around my neck and tell them how much I love them. They're everything to me, every single thing, I thought for the second time as I closed my eyes and breathed in their baby shampoo. And I screw it up sometimes. I miss the beauty in the midst of the ugly and the hard. I don't mean to; it just happens. Maybe these days are reminders of what it should not be, and tomorrow it will be better, and their chaos will be funny and normal again. It has to be. I have to make it. Because tomorrow morning will always dawn brighter and earlier than I expect, and there will be feet wedged firmly in the small of my back, and there will be a soggy diapered toddler crawling on top of my head, and there will be coffee and a husband dashing out the door, and I will look at my precious children, and they will always be everything to me.
Every single damn thing.