A Theory of Relativity

From our family portrait session on Sunday: one of the many shots that won’t make the wall, as Nicholas was too busy minding Julianna’s business to be bothered looking at the camera

I remember a day, long ago, when we had a long list of household essentials we needed, and having nothing else to do, Christian and I went out after lunch to run errands. It was a gorgeous day, so we impulsively hopped over to the state park and took a hike. By then it was getting late enough in the afternoon to be thinking about dinner, and we hadn’t gotten anything out at home or even thought about what to make. “Feel like going out to dinner?” one of us asked, and the other one shrugged and said, “Sure!” During the course of dinner, we decided to go see a movie. The upshot of all this spontaneity was that our errand run, which began around 1p.m., turned into a date night lasting until eleven.

Such profligate use of time is my Shangri La now. Parenthood is such a strange bird–children evoke such conflicting reactions. You feel shackled to a routine you can’t escape, and you long for freedom, and yet you know if you had that freedom it would feel unsafe, empty, shallow. Pick any five-minute window during the day and you’re guaranteed to feel within it insurmountable frustration and breathtaking sweetness in quick succession.

On Sunday, the three oldest kids all went to Children’s Liturgy together. Christian was holding Michael, and as the kids left the pew I glanced over at him and found him a full six feet away from me. I scooted down the bench, which felt an oddly conspicuous thing to do, and as I snuggled into his arm for the Liturgy of the Word I looked toward the group of kids preparing to head across the hall. Alex was holding both his little siblings’ hands. Nicholas and Julianna stood half his height–Julianna had maybe two inches on Nicholas, but no more. “Christian,” I whispered, “they do look like twins.”

It was a moment of clarity, illuminating why my life is as chaotic as it is. For the last couple of years, I have focused my sights on this fall as the point at which “the worst would be over.” I knew it would be hard with Julianna lagging so far behind developmentally, shepherding Nicholas through the terrible threes while nursing a baby. But the point at which Julianna went to kindergarten and Nicholas began preschool–I expected a real breath of relief when school started this year. And it hasn’t really worked out that way. In part, it’s because I instituted changes at home–beginning to practice my flute again (however little), attending a class for my own spiritual development, which wipes out one of Nicholas’ school days.

But it’s also because the kids are getting older and having their own activities. Cub Scouts is so much more intensive than I anticipated, and those swim lessons for Julianna–brutal. We quit after one session.

Frankly, these days I think of having one child as a Shangri-La of freedom. And as I contemplate the relative perspective on life of an overwhelmed mother of one and a juggling-it-all-sometimes-successfully-sometimes-not mother of four (Mommy, I’m going poo-poo! Nicholas interrupts me from the bathroom by calling–twice, because you know, good news always gets better with repetition), I’m beginning to wonder if relief from the chaos is only going to come with the onset of the empty nest. To wonder if between now and then, it’s never going to get any better, only worse–that even the school days will never settle down and offer me the freedom to sit still for a while without thinking of the ten dozen things I should be doing instead.

It’s not a thought I find comforting. But maybe I’m overreacting. After all, even with his activities, Alex isn’t high maintenance anymore. Nicholas will reach independence before Julianna, but someday even she will be able to get dressed and go to the bathroom without my help. And maybe, when that Shangri-La day arrives, things will look quite different.