She knew how to hide from me, but she was too young to realize I could hear her even though I couldn’t see her. The crinkling of the cellophane led me to her secret spot. She was crouching behind the TV cabinet, and I could tell by her profile that she had something in her mouth. A green and red wrapper for a piece of strawberry candy from her Halloween stash was crumpled up in her tiny fist. She was shocked to see me, and her reaction was to spit it out, hoping to undo what was already done. But, it was too late. She was aware of the rules regarding how much candy she could have each day. It was her desire for a sweet treat that was driving her decisions, not any moral obligation to me.
My heart dropped as the translucent pink candy hit the hardwood floor. In that moment I knew this was a turning point in our relationship.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled as she shifted her gaze away from mine.
I moved in closer, scooped her up and hugged her tight. This was the first time she had tried to hide from me, but it wouldn’t be the last. And, it wouldn’t be the last time I would try to find her.
Now, almost ten years later, our games of hide-and-seek are more complicated. They involve monitoring the websites she visits and following her Tumblr posts. They also involve deeper matters of the heart and soul—her longings, fears and frustrations.
My eyes and ears no longer adequate, I must employ my heart in order to find hers. There’s a different kind of energy involved. It’s the work of waiting and being patient and present. I don’t dare bang on her door, demanding her to connect with me. But, sometimes in those moments, instead of having to search for her, she’ll crack open the door and reach for me.
Charlotte Donlon lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her husband and their two children. She blogs at charlottedonlon.com and explore ideas related to faith and waiting at gainingwait.com. You can reach her @charlottedonlon.
As soon as you announce you’re expecting your first child you start hearing it. Those cliché refrains offered by other parents, “your life is going to change,” “sleep now because you won’t ever sleep again,” “parenthood is the best and hardest thing you’ll ever do.” When you’re still months away from your due date, you file away those pieces of “advice” and start preparing for the worst.
I constantly reminded my husband that we might not sleep through the night until we send this kid to college. I read up on how to deal with acid reflux babies, joined Facebook groups for breastfeeding support, purchased three different sound machines, and accepted every baby carrying contraption offered to me. I was creating an arsenal. I was determined to be as prepared as possible in case our baby came careening out of me, hell-bent on destroying my sanity.
Imagine my surprise when my son came out perfectly content, latched immediately, and soon became known as The Chillest Baby In All The Land. He’s eight months old, and I can count on one hand how many times he hasn’t slept through the night. He’s a dream baby. We got so lucky.
What nobody ever told me is that I’d be the one struggling to sleep at night.
I have never been an overly empathetic person. Bleeding heart, I am not. “Yes, that’s sad. I’m sorry for them” was about as far as my empathy tended to go in cases of major news story tragedies or local strangers misfortunes. I actually wondered at times if I was a little too unfeeling, so many other people seemed to react so strongly to these things. Then I had a baby.
Did you know that your brain changes when you become a mother? Actual, physical changes occur. Gray matter expands; new pieces start to light up like a game of Simon. I think I knew this before I googled it. I knew when headlines became traumatizing. I’d catch a glimpse of some terrible fate befalling a child and gnaw over it for hours. One offhanded image about an abused baby in a novel and I found myself in tears. The tertiary storyline in film-thirty seconds of backstory including a baby, domestic abuse, and neglect kept me from paying attention to the rest of the plot. Who cares if the super spy saves the world, someone needs to save that baby!
No one told me I might react to motherhood this way. No one told me that my freaking brain would change. No one warned me that I might develop this overwhelming empathy towards all children everywhere. No one told me I’d pray for a way to disable the headline feature on Facebook so I wouldn’t accidentally read some horror story that would stick in my brain for weeks. No one told me I’d start turning off films halfway through or avoid certain novels or, gasp, be afraid to watch my beloved Law & Order: SVU because SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN TO OLIVIA’S BABY, I JUST KNOW IT. I can’t handle even fictionalized accounts of harm befalling a child anymore.
No one told me that motherhood would fill me so full of love for my child that I wouldn’t be able to keep it from overflowing. No one told me motherhood meant I’d want to ensure the safety of every child I read or see or hear about. No one could have told me. Before I had a child I would never have believed them.
Shannon J. Curtin is a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of two collections of poetry, Motherland (forthcoming from Anchor and Plume Press), and File Cabinet Heart (ELJ Publications, summer 2014), Her poetry has been featured in a variety of literary magazines including Short, Fast, and Deadly, The Muddy River Review, Vox Poetica, and The Elephant Journal. She holds an MBA, competitive shooting records, and her liquor. She’s the mother of Quinn, a real boy, and Bruno a dog that wishes he was a real boy. She would probably like you. You can find her at www.shannomazur.com and @Shannon_Mazur.
What if you—and only you—were given an extra hour each day with the stipulation that you had to spend it on yourself? What if, while the rest of the world stood stock-still, frozen in time for sixty minutes, you could do whatever you pleased? What would you do? Nothing? Something? Everything? Would you read the Twilight series, or learn how to type properly? Would you finally solve the Rubik’s Cube, write letters to local politicians, research recipes, start an indoor herb garden? Maybe you would take a bath one day and go for a run the next. Maybe you would stretch out on your sofa, when the sun cuts across it just right, and doze.
At first, you might walk around aimlessly, overwhelmed by the decadence of it all. A whole hour! To myself! I don’t deserve this! The concept of not putting others’ needs before your own would certainly feel foreign, unnatural, even wrong. Like the psychological equivalent of putting an oxygen mask on yourself first and then your child. Isn’t that what selfish women with no mothering instincts do? But, you’re a rule follower and don’t want to lose this bonus hour. Gradually, you would get used to the idea and stop questioning your worthiness of such a windfall. You’d start planning.
You would recall hundreds of projects deemed not important enough, shoved to the back burner, and slowly parade them back into consideration. You’d finally organize the family photo albums which, in your haste to be done by the end of naptime, you never spent enough time on. You could design a weight-lifting regimen for yourself without worrying about what anyone thinks of your progress. You could write poetry. You may even dabble in learning a second language or a musical instrument. Or sing unabashedly at the top of your lungs without the masking drone of the vacuum.
You would wonder why you ever put off these things, now making you so happy. It’s almost as if you put off being happy.
Each day would bring the promise of an hour’s worth of self-improvement, of productivity, of fulfilling your shelved dreams. An unaccountable hour when you weren’t Momma or Honey or Mrs. So-and-so, you were just You. No longer would you tick off the countless daily sacrifices, which no one seems to notice, aloud to the dog while folding clothes. Resentment that used to build dramatically—like a thundercloud heavy with storm potential— would dissipate into sunshine. You could dance unfettered, free of the should-be-doing guilt, then re-emerge as your best self: satisfied and focused, energized, patient. By taking care of yourself, you would become a better mom, a better wife. Spending an hour with yourself would make you better with everyone—even you.
So what are you waiting for? Schedule it into your day.
Michelle Riddell lives with her family in rural mid-Michigan. She is a substitute teacher at her daughter’s elementary school where source material, both heartbreaking and humorous, is abundant. Her short features have been published in MomSense and Hello,Darling magazines.
I sit here writing with sunshine streaming through the windows of my newly renovated kitchen and my much beloved puppy sleeping at my feet, listening to the deafening silence of my children’s absence. A friend has taken those who are homeschooled for one last romp in the snow, and school has swallowed up the other two for the day. I love the bittersweet nostalgia I feel when they aren’t around. Longing for them to come home, smiling to myself at the memory of them, but soaking in the solitude like cacti after a long rain.
This rare moment alone in my kitchen is beautiful in sight and sound. Mostly beautiful. “Newly renovated” is code for we haven’t put everything away yet and there are still those last few projects that need finishing. And while it’s quieter here than usual, I did just have to Google “weird dog stomach noises” due to the strange sounds emanating from Penelope, our seven month old standard poodle. And the faucet is dripping. Again. Okay, so maybe it isn’t exactly Norman Rockwell, but all this convergence of construction, the puppy, and pondering the kids has got me thinking about the similarities among the three.
One might not quickly see the comparisons between home improvement and parenting. While raising kids and training puppies aren’t exactly on the same level, they are at least the same sport. Like the major leagues and tee ball, kids are obviously more demanding, especially as they get older. But they do start off relatively the same. For babies and dogs, in the beginning, it’s all about the basic three–food, sleep and poop. True, I never had to get up in the middle of the night and change my kid’s dirty diaper outside in below freezing temperatures, but the principle is the same.
As they get older though, the needs of human and canine offspring diverge significantly. Dogs’ needs don’t exactly grow as they do. it remains pretty much about food, sleep and poop (though a scratch behind the ears or a good game of fetch doesn’t hurt any). Human progeny, however, are like antibiotic-resistant bacteria–just when you think you have them under control, they take it to the next level but in a really cute, endearing way. Mostly.
I remember my sleep-deprived, shoe-searching, seatbelt-buckling, four-kids-under-seven days when I would’ve given anything for a bit of fast-forward. Not a sending-you-off-to-college leap, just a little jump into a world where I slept through the night, only had to find my own shoes and buckle my own seat belt. Now I am there, living in a land of progressively independent human beings who still can’t find their own shoes but are otherwise increasingly self-sufficient. I am learning that it doesn’t make parenting any easier. True, while it’s much less physically demanding and I don’t carry anyone on my hip or feed meals from my boob, navigating the dark waters of older children is frightening.
I used to worry about scraped knees on the playground and teaching my kids to stop sucking their fingers. Now I worry about wounded hearts and teaching my kids to keep their minds and bodies pure. I used to worry about letting them “cry it out” and timeouts and snack time. Now I worry about speaking real truth with love and the irreversible consequences of momentary lapses in judgment and feeding them the Gospel everyday.
This is where parenting is like home renovation. When we set out to update our kitchen, we had a plan, a budget and a timeline. Now we have a beautiful kitchen and those other things are all in the garbage can under the window. We spent hours designing, discussing and discerning what would look best, how much it would cost, and how long it would take. I am quite confident God (and the entire staff of Lowe’s Home Improvement) was laughing at us through this entire planning stage. Then you get started and plans need to be adjusted. There are unexpected costs and delays. And you never quite finish. There is always that one last detail, and just about the time you finish that, some other detail is in need of attention.
So goes parenting. In the beginning, you think you have it all mapped out, but in reality, well, reality has little to do with your map. I don’t say this to discourage planning and preparation by those contemplating parenthood. It’s good to do your homework, if for no other reason than it will give you something to laugh about years down the road. But being a parent is all about adapting, switching tactics, rising to the occasion. I guess we’re a bit like that antibiotic-resistant bacteria too. Just when they think they have us beat, we dig deep and surprise them. Either that or we hide in the closet with a box of chocolates. Down but not out, we live to fight another day.
When I think about my beautiful, almost finished kitchen, I realize that it isn’t the only thing that got a makeover. I got a little upgrade too. I learned some new skills. There was lots of compromising, blood, sweat and tears. It’s a mix of things I really wanted, things my husband really wanted, and things that will do for now. When I think about my beautiful, way-too-close-to-grown-up children, I realize the same thing–I have spent the last fifteen odd years helping them grow and mature but we’ve really been teaching each other.
I sit here in my kitchen which is mostly finished but not quite, and I think that is a pretty good description of us all. Whether you are parent or child, or even dog, you are in the process of being remodeled. You are being remade so that you will function better, be more beautiful, more structurally sound. Along the way, things might not go exactly as you have planned and the costs will be higher than expected but in the end, you will be beautifully and perfectly designed, ready to feed and serve any and all who come your way. Till then, you just have to trust in the process and most importantly in the Carpenter who is in charge.
Amy Spiegel is mom to four active kids, wife to a college professor, and a graduate of Taylor University with a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Political Science. She speaks at various women’s events, writes at WisdomAndFollyBlog.com, and helps her husband with his writing projects. She is the author of Letting Go of Perfect (B&H Publishing Group 2012).