Stickiness of Motherhood
It’s a frozen January morning. The air is so frigid it makes my eyes tear, and I take shallow breaths to avoid burning my lungs. I’m leaning into the opening of my minivan’s sliding door, my body shielding my toddler so there is no possible way that she will tumble to the pavement. A step stool is placed on the floor right at the base of the captain’s chair to help her crawl up into her car seat unassisted. I do not have the strength to lift her, and it wouldn’t be safe for me to attempt it.
It’s a slow process of encouragement on both of our parts. We allot extra time for all of our everyday tasks, but we’re able to plod along in our own way. She helps me get her straps around her shoulders. They are always twisted. I try to untwist them, but sometimes I can’t, so she’ll crawl back out, and we’ll start the process all over again.
Six weeks ago, I had spinal surgery to stabilize my upper spinal cord. Today is my first day on my own with my girls, ages 3 and 7. Unlike the drifts of snow surrounding us, my extended family has melted back to their lives over 1,000 miles away. My husband returned work, unable to take off any more time to help me.
Earlier in the morning, my girls and I successfully navigated getting my older daughter to school. The trip encouraged and showed me that I am still capable. As I fumble with the car seat straps now, I begin to appreciate what it’s like to have quick nimble fingers around me to help, and I realize I’m grateful when my first grader is with us. She’d have her younger sister snapped into her seat within seconds.
My youngest and I drive to the small neighborhood grocery store less than a mile from our home. We’re talking to each other about the pancake breakfast dad is going to fix us this weekend, and how we need to buy a handful of items, like syrup. The store is like something out of a time capsule from the 1950s, where people pull paper tickets to wait in line by the butcher counter, and elderly customers still write paper checks and engage in small-talk. I like going to this store.
I could wait until I’m a bit further along in my recovery, but it’s only a matter of time before I must go out alone with my youngest. For our first trip, attempting one small errand seems manageable to me. We have the entire morning ahead of us. I know it will be a learning experience and easier to handle if I’m not rushed.
Once at the store, trying to get my daughter unbuckled is tricky. You have to press hard on the red button to her car seat, and both of us find it difficult. Sometimes we get it together, her little thumb pressing down on top of my own. She crawls out of her seat and slides down my body like I’m a fireman pole. I brace my arms against her back, so she doesn’t slip, fall, and hit her head. We practiced this routine many times before my family left. Everyone tried to help me figure out how to manage motherhood with lifting restrictions and searing arm pain.
We make our way to the store, her little hand gripping the bottom of my jacket. I encourage this, so she doesn’t accidentally pull on one of my arms.
As we walk around the store together taking our time, I enjoy listening to my daughter’s precocious chatter. The other morning, she told me she wanted to be a marine biologist. Do three-year-olds know what marine biologists do? I asked her, “It’s so I can study whales, mommy.” Oh, maybe she does. I don’t underestimate what’s in her mind. I allow her to voice her thoughts. I listen.
We’re picking up only what we can hold. She immediately wants to hold the woman-shaped syrup bottle. I think that is a good idea. I hold the buttermilk powder and bread. I allow her to pick out a snack, and we head to the cashier. On tippy toes, my youngest places the syrup on the moving conveyor belt and then takes a step back. She becomes shy and silent around strangers, so she hides behind me, and I continue to shield her with my body.
I have two small plastic grocery sacks, one in each hand. My daughter is gripping the tail of my coat once again. We make our way carefully through the parking lot, trying to avoid the ice and the old grayish-brown, insulation-looking slush that is piled between the parking spots.
I get to the car and fumble with the keys, dropping my purse in the slush. I’m thinking I’m glad it is black when I hear a little gasp. I turn to see my daughter slip, her legs go out from under her, and she sits down in the nasty slush, too. She immediately begins to cry.
I step up to my daughter, so she can grab my legs, and I push her back up to standing. She’s covered from the waist down with miserably cold, filthy slush. I try to calm her, and tell her it will be okay. I have clean pants for her inside the minivan. My minivan now holds all the essentials of motherhood—diapers, baby wipes, and extra clothes—that I can no longer carry.
My daughter crawls into the van and heads to the third-row seat that holds a bag of clean clothes. She brings it to me, and we take out a clean pair of leggings. The boots she is wearing are big enough for her to step in and out of easily. She takes them off. We roll down the dirty, wet pants and leave them puddled on the van floor. Next, she sits down, and we begin the work of getting her clean pants on together. I encourage her to give it a try. Even with my new physical limitations, I know there’s still so much I can teach my children. I still have a voice; I use it. I still have a presence; I’m here.
We head home now that my daughter is in clean pants, nestled in her car seat once again. Her stocking feet wiggling free from her snow boots that still rest on the van floor. At home, my daughter crawls out of her seat and steps into her boots. I make sure she’s safely settled inside before heading out for the grocery bags.
While bringing the sacks into the home, one slips out of my grasp. It crashes down; it’s the one containing the syrup. The container breaks and syrup oozes out in the foyer and outside on the door stoop, which freezes on contact. Now, I begin to cry. My daughter comes up to me and says, “It’s okay mommy, I don’t like syrup on my pancakes anyway.” I don’t say, “But, I do.” Instead, I hug her, unable to speak as we comfort each other.
My daughter is absolutely right; the syrup isn’t important. We ventured out together on our first day alone. Yes, it was filled with unpleasant mishaps, and it wasn’t easy, but we did it. We are already adapting and learning how to do everything just a little bit differently. I feel grateful and fortunate to have the ability to walk. I know one day I’m going to look back and laugh at the hilarity of the situation. Even with perfectly functioning arms, when it’s below zero outside, how do you clean frozen syrup off the front porch stoop?
Stephanie Mouton grew up in various spots around the country, from rural Wyoming to the urban sprawl of Houston, before settling in Texas with her Louisiana-raised husband. She now resides in the Chicago area, where she has taught her husband and daughters about the joy of sledding and the agony of getting up early to shovel snow. She loves reading and writing about the pleasures and challenges of parenthood. You can follow her on Twitter https://twitter.com/moutonfam4 or Instagram www.instagram.com/moutonfam4.