4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
We went for a walk today. It had snowed and was cold but my husband had the car and we needed to get out. Like, get out. They’d been ganging up on each other all day, picking first on one and then another, making each sibling in turn the outsider, which meant mostly our youngest. Because she’s simultaneously totally adorable and unbelievably annoying.
When I’d finally gotten changed and made it outside to join them playing in the yard I found her standing on the porch crying, with her face caked in snow. The boys had whitewashed their sister (which in our household means shoving someone’s face in snow.)
So I calmly walked up to the boys, said that I needed them to stop bullying their sister, scooped up a handful of snow and rubbed it in first one face and then the other.
I wasn’t laughing and I wasn’t doing it in anger. I think we were all shocked because it isn’t my parenting style at all. They both became indignant, then teary-eyed, pointing out what a hypocrite I was, saying that now I was the bully. Which was sadly sort of true.
“But I’ve put you in time out and I’ve explained why I want you to stop and I’ve asked you to stop and yet you do it over and over and over and over. I want you to feel empathy for her. I want you to want to protect her. I’m done. I’m done! Just stop. Stop. Stop!”
I may have gone on for much longer in the same vein. By the time I’d stopped talking I had the chokey voice and was raspy and sad.
So I grabbed the girls’ hands and marched up the hill on our walk, then along the road to the place where the ocean has torn away chunks of shale, where runoff has worn down the cracks and crevices, where the ocean crashes against the rock.
I remember walking here with them when I’d wear our youngest on my back, hold the others’ hands.
It was always frustrating and terrifying, someone was always whining or crying, even as I chirped along in my fake cheery voice, anything to get them moving, to get us out of the house. We’d barely make it to the other side, me always fretting over the one child whose hand I couldn’t hold, the cars zipping by, barely any shoulder to keep us safe.
When we would finally arrive we’d sit on a blanket, eat a snack, sip from sippy cups, stand and look out at the ocean as I warned them from going too close to the edge, and girded myself for the exhausting march home.
But now they trotted along on long legs, kicking at snow, commenting on nothing and everything. One of the girls asked about TV shows I used to watch to lighten our mood post whitewash, and I told them about Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, the Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and The Brady Bunch.
I was singing the theme song to The Brady Bunch when my oldest stepped to the edge of the rocks to throw a snowball into the ocean. I stopped singing to warn him. He pointed out a narrow, ice-covered rock slab ten feet below the precipice on which he stood. The waves crashed and roared just below that.
“I wouldn’t fall in!” he said.
Just then his brother ran toward him, tripping and sliding along the snowy rock, a challenging backward glance thrown at me over his shoulder, then he was on his butt even as I screamed for him to stop.
My fingers and legs went numb.
He grabbed the edge of the rock wall just as his legs hung over the edge, cackling with glee.
“Done! You are done!” I yelled.
He did a time out while the rest of us clambered on the rocks. Then eventually he rejoined us.
“We want to bring mussels home.”
“Watch me stomp in this puddle.”
“Look how close I am to the edge!”
“Climb this without using your hands like Beastmaster!”
“We should climb this face!”
No. No, no, no.
“Don’t step on snow if you don’t know whether there’s rock underneath. Don’t step on ice chunks in puddles if you don’t know how deep the crevasse is. Don’t put your boot in over the neoprene, it’s not waterproof there,” I replied to everyone, and apparently no one, all at once.
“Neoprene!” (Stomp, splash.)
I couldn’t stand it. They were being so sassy. So unsafe. I felt ganged up on. Like a bad mother still from the questionable whitewash tactic. Like the left out kid. Like an old lady about to slip on slime-covered rocks to certain death, or at least a broken hip, below.
Eventually the girls and I walked ahead as the boys did fake parcor over snow-covered rocks along the hillside, the bitter ocean roiling below. We were so close to the rickety steps back up the cliff to the relative safety of a stranger’s grassy yard, I could almost taste it.
My oldest son caught up to me, we were almost there. But then his brother yelled from far away.
“Help! I’m stuck!”
“Is he stuck?” I asked.
“No. He’s faking.”
“You have 20 seconds to get unstuck!” I yelled over my shoulder.
By the time I’d counted backwards to 5, his laughter was tinged with hysteria.
He wasn’t pulling himself out of the rocks. Because he couldn’t.
He’d stepped on a bridge of snow between two large boulders side by side and his butt and leg had slipped through. His one boot was wedged below while his arms, head and other boot waved out of the crevasse.
Just like I said would happen.
I wanted so badly to leave him. He was above the high tide line after all. Plus, I’d told him so. Plus, he’d been driving me crazy.
But it was almost 4:30 and the sun was setting and anyway, I couldn’t leave him.
So we all rushed back and I took off my gloves, reached down, pulled him out.
He stumbled off without a thank you, flexing his leg, then running across the rocks recklessly again.
My god, parenting. The redundancy, the exhaustion, the warnings unheeded, the bratty behavior, the relentless surge forward. It didn’t matter that I told him so. It never does. (Neoprene! Stomp! Splash!)
I always see it before it happens, the child running out into the road before the car, the trip into the icy, crashing surf far below, the slip into the crevasse, the crash through the ice. I’m never surprised by their injuries. I’ve almost always seen it in my head first. We can’t ever keep them safe.
Some things though I can’t even picture. If I could I don’t think I could parent at all.
It is the thing that eventually shakes me out of my seething, exhausted misery.
There are worse things than wanting to throttle your kid (whatever act of verbal aggression or time out throttle means, I don’t even know.) In the wake of yet another school shooting so obvious and pointless and horrific that I have to hum to myself every time the thought arises because it would destroy me if I considered the possibility, I know there is so much worse.
It seems I can never keep them safe, no matter how hard I try. More often than not I’m amazed when they don’t break through the ice to the dark, murky depths below, when they don’t go hurtling into the ocean dragging their sibling along where the waves will surely pull them all away.
Eventually we cut through the stranger’s yard, crossed the road. They stopped and sat to watch the sun set on an old bench along the side of the road. We’d been here before.
They were calm for the first time in hours. I didn’t hear anything mean being said, or naughty or teasing. They discussed how far a MLB pitcher could throw a baseball out into the cove. I took their photo. They were sweet, childish, imagining, considering. They were awed by the beauty. Someone said how lucky we are.
And we are. So lucky. I breathe deeply.
This. This moment, this day, these children. How I adore them.
Not two minutes later someone calls someone else an asshole (which might not even be wholly inaccurate), someone gets shoved into the sharp edge of the railing, someone else falls. I put the shover in a time out (walking ten feet behind us), check to make sure the others are okay.
And then we head for home with red cheeks, wet feet, scraped knees and fingers. So very, very lucky indeed.