When out and about with my kids, people sometimes tell me, "Cherish them while they're little," or "You'll look back on this time fondly." Half of the time I think, Of course! My precious love dumplings are going to grow up so much faster than I can imagine and someday I will desperately miss this time of being so wholly symbiotic with these spoils of love. And the rest of the time, I want to snarl, "If you want something to cherish, then why don't you get over here and wipe a butt, pal." Even on the calmest day of parenting my two complicated, unpredictable and baffling children, my feelings are contradictory: I don't want to ever be away from my kids, except for all the times that I desperately want to be away from my kids. And, actually, I can feel both things simultaneously.
I first realized the intensity of that duality one day a few years back, when, with the jolliest of intentions, I packed my then 2-year-old daughter and my 6-month-old son into the car and set off for a nearby kid's museum. It was a sunny day, warm enough for my toddler to gambol around in the museum's artificial creek and for my baby to get in some primo kid watching. But then, like so many of my best laid plans, it went awry... and quickly.
As soon as we got there, we made a beeline for the toddler play room, where, not five minutes into our visit, my daughter pushed a newly walking baby down, and it was not an accident. Trying to be a good parent, I knelt down to her level with my baby in the sling and cooly said, "No. You cannot push babies. No pushing." Totally in control, I removed her from that part of the museum and took a snack break so she could reconnect with her inner honey bear.
We moved on to wading in the creek, but as soon as we got to its cement banks, my baby began crying with DEFCON 1 intensity. Before having kids, I didn't understand how deeply affecting a baby's cry is, how completely it frazzles a parent's brain. When one of my babies is crying, I can't deal with my keys not fitting easily in a lock, my misplaced water bottle or a sticky stroller brake -- and I sure as shit can't deal with a misbehaving toddler. Their cries have an almost magical ability to empty my brain of any thought other than them, which I suppose is the point of a baby's cry.
As my son continued to wail, I checked his diaper (clean and dry), offered him a pacifier (he spat it out), felt his forehead (cool), burped him (no burps) and even made that shushing white noise sound that the Happiest Baby on the Block guy does (no dice). Meanwhile, my toddler was yanking on my pant leg and whining because she wanted me to take her clothes off so she could play naked -- something that would surely result in us getting 86'd from the kids' museum, which would not be a memory that I cherished.
We were already struggling, but then my toddler saw an older boy throwing rocks in the water and copied him with her inferior aim, nearly hitting a little girl. The look of horror on the mother of the girl's face was quite justified. I knelt down to my toddler with my screaming baby still on my hip and firmly said, "No. No throwing rocks. See that girl? You could hit her and it would hurt. Don't throw rocks." My daughter screeched, pulled away and hurled rocks in every direction like a maniac. Clutching my wailing baby in one arm, I caught my toddler by the shoulder. I pried the rocks out of her meaty little fist and went in an inch from her face and seethed, "We're leaving since you can't play nicely." I fastened my still-screaming baby in the stroller and stuffed the tantruming toddler into the sling, even though my toddler belonged in the stroller and my baby in the sling. (All I could think was CRYING.) Steering the stroller with one hand, I got my two sobbing children out of the museum and back to the car. It was an epic three-way meltdown; certainly one of the less pleasant hours of my life.
I wasn't always chill when I only had one kid, but that first year with two was brutal. It was nearly impossible to stay on top of my daughter while also taking care of her baby brother.
On the way home, my toddler was so contrite that I felt like a mean old bully for not giving her another warning before bailing. She repeated, "No throw rocks. Sorry. No throw." But my baby had no such regrets (by virtue of being a baby), and wailed during the entire drive home. I reached back to offer pacifiers and bottles. I patted his head, shushed and cooed, but he wouldn't let up. And so, three blocks from home, as I was stuck trying to make an unprotected left at a dysfunctional Los Angeles intersection, as one kid sob-chanted her apology, as the other one wailed for reasons I just couldn't figure out, I screamed. I screamed like the banshees of yore, screamed like a lady who might need to reconsider the importance of "fun outings" with her toddler and baby. It was a scream that demarcated "losing it" from "lost it." When I finally stopped to take a breath, I heard that my scream had, of course, frightened the kids, resulting in more screaming (which I deserved).
I once wrote something about how annoying it is when people without kids judge parents. A friend rightfully pointed out that no, everyone can have opinions about parenting because we have all been parented, even if we haven't become parents ourselves. This is true, but after deliberating for a few years, I've decided that much walking of many (mountainous) miles must be done before one can say to a parent with certainty, "I would never do that." For one thing, I was sure that I would never go to Crocs's website for any purpose other than to mock the "shoes," but damn, dude, one day they were having a hell of a sale, I got free shipping and those plastic monstrosities are perfect for little kids. The crow, I am eating it and not just because of aesthetically bankrupt footwear choices.
When we finally got home from the museum that day, when we'd all stopped crying, I busted out our dirty, misshapen kiddie pool and let my toddler romp around in a few inches of water. She was naked as a cherub and shrieking with delight. I dipped my toes in as my baby nursed. The three of us shared a pouch of pureed mangos. We chatted about pee-pee, potties and bunnies. My baby licked my neck like a kitten (he still does that now as a 2-year-old -- it's one of his quirks).
Sometimes, the most pleasant things come after the least pleasant things, like all the bad feelings get used up and all that's left is not necessarily joy, but at least contentment. However we came by it, that afternoon was sunny, we were together and I cherish it.
A version of this appeared on JJ Keith's blog.