This Stage of Motherhood, In Four Pictures

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1. Alex’s search for the meaning of life is carried out using the simplest of tools…like the wax tablet he made in his gifted program, where he has spent the last several weeks learning to utter such profundities as “May the Force Be With You” and “Stay out of my room”…in Latin.

Fox

2. Alex was assigned to write a simile as a Valentine for his parents.

Best. Valentine. Ever.

Valentine

3. We are the Loser-est of Loser Tooth Fairies. Seriously. This is like the fourth time for poor Nicholas. And losing teeth is a matter of great drama and panic for him, which makes our Loser-li-ness even worse.

Tooth Fairy Letter

Which leads to…

4.

Tooth Fairy

 

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More Post-Nap Cuteness

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WIN_20151112_1515533:05 p.m. and I hear hands rattling the spokes on the stairs. “Hey, Munchkin, you up?” I call.

“Yes.” Michael pads into my bedroom, where I’m channeling my childhood by writing while stretched out across my bed. “Mommy, why do you call me Munchkin?”

“Because I like to call you loving, silly names. Like boo boy. Or Little Man. Or belly boy. Are you my boo boy?”

“No!”

“You’re not? Are you my little bunch of grapes?”

“No!” (Giggle.)

“Are you…my Captain America?”

“No!”

“Well then, what are you?”

Giggle again. “I’m just your regular Michael!”

“Oh, you’re my regular Michael! Well come here, my regular Michael.” (Commence chewing and kissing and “Aunt Tamara” chewing.) Michael climbs on top of me and we snuggle and tickle for a while. Then Michael looks over at the wall. “Why do you have a cross on the wall?”

“We have one downstairs, too.”

“No, we don’t have one downstairs!”

“We certainly do. It’s on the living room wall. But it’s not called a cross. It’s a special kind of cross, called a crucifix, because it has Jesus being crucified on it.”

“No, it’s not called a crucifix!”

“Oh, yes it is.”

“No, it isn’t!” Giggle and collapse on my chest.

“Hey, Mr. Not-yet-four years old, don’t mess with your mommy on Catholic stuff.”

“Mommy, that’s what you should call me!”

“Mr. Not-yet-four years old?”

“Yes!” Giggle giggle. “Can we go downstairs? I want a fruit snack.”

And thus ends another episode of cute post-nap moments with Michael Mayhem, of whom you would never believe, looking at him, that he is capable of ripping the leg off Julianna’s very special Disney World Tinker Bell doll.

The cuter they are, the more danger they hide. Just sayin’.

Then And Now

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Alex and Julianna, age 25 months & 19 months

Alex and Julianna, age 25 months & 19 months

We stretched out across the front pew when we arrived at church Sunday morning, the boys (as usual) waging a silent war to sit by Mommy, who did not at all appreciate being consequently shoved so far to the end of the pew that there wasn’t room on the kneeler.

When the fallout cleared, Nicholas had won the prime position and Christian had Michael restrained on his lap at the far end. I did a quick calculation. Michael is now approaching 27 months. I thought: If I got pregnant now, how old would he be when the baby was born?  (I do this calculation a lot, actually. Is that weird?) Then I thought: When Alex was this age, how old was Julianna?

The answer: six months.

I took a minute to re-orient myself in that time. When Alex was twenty-seven months old, we were having PT twice a week, and speech and OT once a week. Julianna’s heart surgery happened right around that time, and Alex had already had at least one sleepover with a friend down the street, necessitated by Julianna’s frequent hospital stays.

Try that one on for size: Sending your two-year-old to a sleepover.

Toothbrush Headbands

Can YOU imagine sending this kid for a sleepover?

I can’t imagine sending Michael to stay overnight with anyone but a grandparent, and even then only with his siblings along for company. And, ahem, supervision. Let’s be honest.

The contrast between “then” and “now” can be a really striking thing, can’t it? I tend to view Michael as a baby at the same age his older brother was being asked to start stepping up to the plate. Then, I only knew I had to start leading Alex toward responsibility. Now, I’m so occupied with trying to teach children #s 2 and 3 the responsibility, I can barely think about treating Michael like anything other than a baby. If I remember to tell him to start the dishwasher and bring his plate over to me, that’s about as much as I can expect.

And then, of course, he’s not talking, which makes him seem younger than he really is. And his physical prowess is so impressive, most of my energy goes into keeping things out of his reach and unbroken. (Did I mention he snapped my new Jazzercise DVD in half? And we subsequently learned the DVD had just been retired?)

The whole train of thought snapped me back to another then-and-now moment. About ten or twelve weeks into my pregnancy with Michael, I went to the Ob/Gyn’s office on a mission. In my first two pregnancies I had looked forward to those trips to St. Louis. They were an adventure, something to look forward to, even when they got to be more frequent. By the third I was starting to feel frazzled by them. By the fourth, I went in with a plan. “I love seeing you,” I said to my doctor, “but these trips are killing me. Do I really need to come every two weeks, and then every week? I mean, we already know I’m going to have a C section. It’s not like we have to keep an eye on the cervix.”

He twiddled his pen and thought his way through it, then wrote out the standard schedule on a piece of paper and started crossing out visits he thought we could skip. “Yes,” he said, “if you were a first-time mother, it would be different. But you’re an experienced mom now. You know what to look for.”

And I chuckled, because at that moment I flashed back to myself having a conversation in that very examining room when the doctor was reassuring me because I was a first-time mother. The difference between that “then” and “now” was just as great as the difference between that fourth-pregnancy moment, two and a half years ago, and yesterday in church.

Perfectly obvious but nonetheless earth-shattering insight of the day: an awful lot of things really do change drastically depending on perspective.

Fading Into Memory

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Photo by Leonard John Matthews, via Flickr

Bedtime on a Tuesday evening is a zoo. Christian is in the basement teaching piano. Julianna is listening to a Christmas sing-along CD (yes, still). Nicholas is endeavoring to stay in the tub until he develops hypothermia. In the other bathroom, Alex sounds like he’s making a movie in the shower, complete with sound effects, music and all dialogue.

And in the front bedroom, Michael sees me sitting on the floor, waiting with a footed sleeper for him. Smiling so big his nose crinkles, he spreads his arms wide: game on. I mirror his position, and with a belly laugh that could power Monstropolis for a year, he runs six steps and launches thirty pounds of heavenly soft skin and baby fat into my arms.

There are moments in life when a mother’s whole world freeze-frames upon a point in time. The clarity makes them seem longer than they are. The feel of the air takes on a character. Colors sharpen on the intersection of sensation and emotion. There’s that heady, half-dizzy buzz in the brain that I associate with joy and with the Holy Spirit, and the achy, fluid feeling in my chest. These are the moments that inspired the cliché about hearts melting.

They’re fleeting moments, quickly buried beneath an avalanche of distraction. When they burst upon me I hold my breath and try to shut down my brain to maximize the imprint. Because it’s not enough for me to be able to tell you about it afterward. I want to be able to close my eyes and feel it all again.

Only it doesn’t work that way, does it? You have to shut down the brain and experience the moments because when they’re gone, they’re just gone. They leave an impression, but it’s not the same. You can’t recapture the visceral, full-body-and-soul experience. Only the memory. Sometimes I question taking pictures because I end up remembering the photo instead of the moment.

Perhaps it’s because so much of the moment depends upon context. We edit our memories depending on what we want to evoke, be that good or bad. Women routinely block out just how wretched the last few weeks of pregnancy are–you think you remember, you talk about it, but when you’re there again the enormity of it overwhelms you anew. Then, as kids grow up and move on, people choose to dwell on the sweet moments, and yet what gives those sweet moments life and body is the chaos, and sometimes the frustration, that surround them. No matter how wide you fling the corners of your mind, you are never going to be able to catch all the nuances and piece them back together: your mood, the myriad details, one stacked upon another, that create one particular day, unique from all others.

I do the best I can, but I mourn the moments even as I clutch at them, because I can already feel them fading into memory. Babyhood, for instance. I know I’m at my limit, and there’s joy and freedom in the dawn of a new era. And yet oh, how I long to hold and nurse a baby again. When I saw a baby being baptized at Mass this weekend, I actually gasped, the shot of longing was so painful, the longing to live it again. Memory lacks that visceral experience.

As the moments come, I try to slow down and hold them as long as possible. And I hold onto the hope that Heaven will allow me to exist in them once again.

In Which Julianna And I Find Something In Common

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Photo via Wiki Commons

Photo via Wiki Commons

I was nine years old the year I discovered figure skating. That was the year Katarina Witt won the gold medal at the Sarejevo Olympics, and it was my first fandom. In retrospect, I think what I loved most about her was the fact that she served as a mirror for me, or rather a more beautiful version of me. That was my fourth grade year and my school picture was unequivocally the single worst photo ever taken of me, tiptoeing at the cusp of an incredibly awkward puberty. She was German, like me, her hair looked like mine when my mom did the fanciest braids; she had the same body shape (although mine was just starting to develop, so I didn’t really know that then), even her name was a mirror of mine.

For several years, in defiance of reality (i.e., the nearest rink was an hour and a half away and I never took a single lesson), I dreamed of being a figure skater. I spent my recesses “practicing” my jumps and striking poses, pretending I was in the middle of a routine. I graduated from that when I realized how foolish I looked, but instead I wrote a proto-novel about an Olympic ice skater.

Over the last thirty years my tastes have shifted. The singles no longer hold a lot of appeal for me. I find ice dance and pairs far more beautiful. But I haven’t watched much, because we’re always busy and even when I made note of an event that would be televised on a station we actually got (we were on basic-basic cable for over a decade, and then dropped it altogether for a few months), I usually would forget to turn it on.

Well, with the Olympics coming up it’s time to get back in touch. So Saturday afternoon we watched part of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Alex was grumpy–he wanted to use the Wii–but he could hardly argue that Mommy’s request to watch a single program was unreasonable. Mommy never, ever, ever claims the TV.

I swept the kitchen during the advertisements and sat on the couch while the pairs programs were on. Julianna and Nicholas were mesmerized, watching with me. When it was over I went to the computer to look up a program from the last Olympics that I remember being exceptionally beautiful. And in the middle of the program I looked up from YouTube to see my daughter on the other side of the computer desk, slowly and carefully twisting and turning…pretending to be a figure skater.

How to describe the emotion of that moment? I have all these boys running around. We’re a superhero family. I know far more about Transformers, Avengers and Justice League than I do about Strawberry Shortcake or, what are those creepy dolls called? Monsters High, or something? Christian and I have an inside joke; we call the girls’ toys section the “creepy girl aisle” because it gives us the willies.

I can’t get inside my daughter’s head; I never know for sure what she’s thinking or if I’m getting a genuine answer to any question I ask her. I’ve learned, for instance, that I can’t ask her if she did what I told her to do, because she’ll say “yes” no matter whether she has or hasn’t. Instead I have to tell her to do it again, and if she says, “Wye dee!” (“already did!”) in a tone of great personal affront, then I know she did it.

She’s the hardest child to shop for because nothing really interests her except music and books, and we already have so many of both. It’s hard to know what sorts of activities will excite her. It’s hard to include her in the family activities as her younger brother shoots past her in cognition and verbal ability and physical prowess.

All of this went through my head in a shock wave as I realized something that was infinitely precious to me as a child, and remains the only sport I actually like, is also special to my little girl. There’s a connection between us I didn’t even know was there. And it made my day.

We’ll be watching a lot of figure skating this year, I think.

Beautiful and Terrible

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A b-day 010Last week, Alex asked for a diary with a lock. “Not a girly one,” he specified.

“Why on earth do you need a diary with a lock?” I asked.

“To write things I don’t want you to see.” Duh.

“Like…like what kinds of things?” I wanted categories, you know, not details.

But he gave me The Look. “Things I don’t want you to see.”

I can’t tell you how much this exchange disturbed my peace of mind. On the one hand, it is inevitable–it is right and proper, even–for him to grow into his own individuality, a process that mandates a certain withdrawal from the intimacy of a parent and child in early childhood. And yet I have visions of all manner of dangerous things being withheld from my knowledge, preventing me from correcting misunderstanding or rescuing from danger. I reminded myself that Alex is pretty good about coming to us with questions and concerns, and I probably don’t need to freak out about it. But I searched Amazon for a non-girly diary with a sense of wistfulness.

It’s a beautiful and terrible thing to watch a child growing up. As he becomes increasingly autonomous, my ability to influence the development of his thoughts and attitudes wanes, and my living example becomes more and more critical. Which is a scary thought. Alex spent the first week of summer vacation losing his temper spectacularly at his siblings, Nicholas in particular. Nicholas is a button-pusher, and Alex is very protective of his belongings, even the ones that seem unimportant. Like a mylar balloon that’s been tied to the back of his chair since his birthday in April. Nicholas was batting it around, and Alex was screaming at him with rage. Now, Nicholas wasn’t doing anything wrong. Alex was completely overreacting. On the other hand, it is his balloon, and Nicholas wasn’t stopping because he likes pushing buttons. Whose side do you take in this situation?

But as I began thinking things through, I realized I do the same thing. Nicholas pushes my buttons, I overreact spectacularly. In fact, I was smack in the middle of a week in which I was feeling overwhelmed by the volume of what had to get done, and I, too, was flipping out at minor, but constant, infractions. I detour to clean up one mess, and thirty seconds later there’s another one. Michael Mayhem + Nicholas button-pusher + Julianna “how much does she understand?” + Alex surely-he’s-too-young-to-be-a-tween…writing it all down clarifies why it frequently overwhelms; that’s quite a combination of child stages and personalities, isn’t it?

But it doesn’t really matter what they throw at me. I’m still teaching them, by my example, about Christian life…accurately or not. I can teach them virtue, or I can teach them hypocrisy: platitudes that can’t stand up to the stresses of real life. My reaction to buttons pushed and messes made is my choice. I just frequently make a poor one.

Scarier yet is the realization that they’re going to remember things about me that I don’t remember doing or saying. There’s an “adult novelty” store that I pass by sometimes, and every time I do, I remember my mother idly wondering if a place like that might “accidentally” have what she needed to complete a farm task for which she hadn’t been able to problem solve a tool. Now, she wasn’t going to go in that store. It was just an offhand comment; I doubt she even remembers it. But I remember it frequently. Which makes me wonder: What am I saying that is making a lasting impression on my kids?

With all this in mind, I called Alex over. I told him frankly that he was not behaving well and neither was I, and we both needed to cool it. And go to confession, which we haven’t done since before Easter. In the last few days, I’ve been quite a bit better…Alex, not quite so much so.

The relationship between a parent and child, I’m realizing in deeper and deeper ways, is a beautiful and terrifying thing.

Mama Rabbit And Me

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English: Rabbit nest found in playground wood ...

English: Rabbit nest found in playground wood chips, O’Fallon, Illinois 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a rabbit under the red maple in front of my house. It’s standing in a funny position, back legs on the grass, front legs up on the mulch. I’m about to turn away when suddenly there’s a flash of gray under its belly. A wiggle. Another flash.

You know that cliché about hearts stopping? Ridiculous, of course. Nobody’s heart stops beating–not when shocked, not when hurt, and not in moments of exquisite perfection, either. But at this moment, my insides flip over as I realize I’m looking at a nursing mother.

Enter Cliché #2, the one about tugging at heart strings. Also ridiculous–except there’s a deep, visceral pull, as if something is trying to yank the center of my chest out through my rib cage. I’m standing at the picture window in the upstairs hallway, scarcely able to breathe, and thinking how weird this reaction is.

To understand why, you have to know that I hate rabbits. The war began when they ate my tomato plants, lovingly grown from seed the first spring of our marriage. I used to throw things at rabbits. Chase them. Yell at them. Try to scare them to death. Once, I even ran over a nest of babies with the lawn mower. That one was an accident, though. They were hidden so well, I didn’t realize it until the damage was done, and I was sick about it.

In this moment, though, with Mama Bunny perched in watchful stillness while her wiggling babies nurse themselves to sleep, I can’t think what I was so bent out of shape about. They were just tomato plants, for crying out loud. After a decade of kid drama, tomato plants hardly seem worth mention.

“Guys! Look!” I call. “It’s a mama rabbit nursing her babies!”

The boys come running to the window. “WHY DOES THE BUNNY HAVE A SCARED LOOK ON HIS FACE?” asks Nicholas in his usual tone of voice, which could be heard somewhere in the vicinity of Mars. They’re fascinated, until they get distracted by play and bickering. I drift downstairs to get a closer look from the living room window. I kneel there, looking out into the coming twilight. Mama rabbit keeps constant vigilance; the only part of her body that moves is her head, which jerks toward every suspicious noise. Her default position faces the cul de sac, where half a dozen kids are playing basketball, but when Alex joins me and taps the window with a pica stick, she whips around and stares directly at us for a full five seconds.

Newborn, nursing babies. The longing catches me off guard, so strong it wants to crush my breath, and yet it’s exquisitely beautiful. I don’t understand how so many women can have a baby or two and then say with finality bordering on hostility, “That’s IT! I’m done.” Don’t they ever ache for more of that sweetness that comes only with those fresh from Heaven?

My rational mind is yelling, “Whoa, girl!”, reminding me of my beaten-up, scarred insides, of Michael Mayhem and Nicholas the strong-willed, of Julianna’s homework, the completion of which frequently is like pulling teeth, and five nights out of seven committed to work or child’s enrichment activity. And yet as I watch that mama rabbit, I don’t care. I want what she has. Oh, how I want it.

At length, the wiggling subsides into stillness. Mama rabbit stays in place, but she grooms her leg, nibbles at the grass. I’m the only watcher now; Alex is playing Star Wars with a pica stick, and upstairs the little ones fight and giggle by turns. Methodically she pulls mulch over the nest, and soon, the babies are invisible. We would have no idea they were there if I hadn’t happened to be looking out the window at the right time. Then she hops away, across the driveway and down the side of the house, and the moment is past.

Over the weekend, the kids play outside. We mow the grass, plant flowers. I venture no closer than four feet, afraid to taint the nest with a human smell. I know what I’m feeling is cyclical–my womb recognizing there is no baby in it this month, and mourning the loss. Maybe I’m making more of all this than there really is. And yet I know that in the years to come, when I pull out the box of motherhood memories to turn them over and ponder them in my heart, this moment will be among them.