Everyone knows motherhood is not all yummy feelings and beautiful moments. But it’s so much harder (read: less fun) to write about the times that challenge the soul. But I’m going to now…
I was REALLY looking forward to working out Tuesday morning. Scheduling Childwatch at the gym has been a pain in my arse (childwatch full, or they’re not open, etc.) and that combined with my parents’ visit and S’s series of long drawn-out colds, I haven’t worked out in almost 3 weeks. This makes me feel achey and exhausted and puffy. Working out regularly = happier me, better mama and spouse and person in general.
So I was all set to take S to the gym with me Tuesday morning because he really did seem all cleared up Monday—a little stuffy, but fine. He woke up crying and and didn’t want me to put him down. I knew he hadn’t had very much to eat Monday night, so I thought he was just very hungry. When he’s really hungry, breakfast is tough because he wants to be in my arms, and if he’s in my arms I can’t cook! And it’s tricky getting anything into him, even cereal, when he’s in this mode. I try to reason with him (silly mama), but he cries and wants me…while his tummy growls loudly. Once his tummy is full, he perks up and is happy and no longer needs to be held by me so much.
So I thought that’s what was going on. But he was extra-upset so I broke down and put on a train documentary (the history of steam trains, a scratchy black-and-white, my retired gentleman-toddler train afficionado’s favorite) so I could make something for him. But as the eggs were cooking, he runs into the kitchen and screams for me to pick him up. I say, “Please be patient, mama is cooking,” and that’s when he throws up on the floor. I scoop him up, talking to him, and feel his belly churning. The eggs start to burn just as he throws up over my shoulder, all down my back.
These are the moments we do not capture on Facebook! Eggs burning, vomit in my hair and down my back and on my toddler, who is crying so hard he is gagging.
What to do first?
Turn off eggs. Talk to toddler. Wipe his face, his eyes, hug him. Notice that the vomit is all clear water and mucous. See if it is a matter of his having an empty stomach—stomach acid + post-nasal drip from his cold = throw-up—and try to offer him some little bits of things to see if he eats them. No, no, no. Hysterics.
We both smell foul. I try to take off my shirt one-handed while holding wailing toddler. I try to take off his shirt gently. I say to myself, “Stay calm.”
So, after the drama, my little boy falls asleep fast and hard on my chest, reminding me of our newborn-couch days.
When I finally put him in the crib, I call the gym to cancel my workout.
I think I might finally have the time to make breakfast cookies (it has been so hard to feed S before preschool, and healthy cookies will help) and after I make the beds, put stuff away, make myself look somewhat presentable, allowing myself to wear the same stretch pants I wore to bed last night and have not yet taken off (everyone does this, right?) I start in on the cookies, just in case he has a quick recovery and can go to school Wednesday.
And then he wakes up.
You get the picture. Everything I tried to start, I had to stop at a midpoint. I want to take good care of him, but because we are on a strict budget, I have been planning our meals down to the penny and that means I cannot let food go bad, or miss making a particular recipe at the right time. I had planned on doing my crucial make-aheads for breakfasts and lunches for both S and DH, but I could not. S needed my arms…all day long…
It IS beautiful and I DO have yummy feelings about my baby boy needing me so much.He was so run down and agitated. My number-one job was to hold him. But sometimes I really need to accomplish my own goals, even if that goal is simply making a batch of breakfast cookies. Not just because of the budget, but also because I am an adult human being whose brain is wired to release endorphins when goals are accomplished. I am pretty much putting aside my goals all the time, not just when he is sick. But I felt an extra layer of guilt that I was feeling impatient, my brain tugging me toward other things, while he was sick.
Still, I did put all aside and took my boy out into the industrial area behind our house, where the trucks and bulldozers were hard at work, and we could watch them from a safe distance at a picnic table. He has only seen them after-hours, when they are still. Watching them scoop dirt and skid through rocks and pour out cement was endlessly fascinating to S and the best therapy for him.
And I was so, so bored.
This is one of the things no one talks about much—the boredom. You want to be interested in what your 21-month-old is interested in, but after a while, you just aren’t. Because you are not even close to being a 21-month-old boy but are instead a forty-two-year-old woman.
There are times when I look at the book he has brought me—the one about trains, the one about trucks—and my heart sinks. Once, I said to him wearily, as he brought me the 100 Vehicles book, “Oh buddy, I’m sorry, I don’t think I can read that one again right now,” and he understood. He went, “Hmmm,” looked at the book, wore an expression that said he was processing his minor disappointment, and then went back to the shelf and selected another book for me to read. I was floored. Communication! Putting aside his desires for mine! I gleefully read the new book to him—one that involved a storyline! characters! relationships!—and thanked him for his compromise.
As soon as we’d finished, he went to the bookshelf and selected 100 Vehicles again. “Lap, lap,” he said, coming toward me, and plopped down in my lap. “Vrrrrummmm!”
Anyway, by Tuesday afternoon, I was a little worn down. He was not able to nap during his afternoon nap time. I look forward to nap time, particularly on days when he is very dependent on me, with the same sort of anticipation you feel when you are about to go on vacation. Smaller scale, but similar. Even if that vacation involves running around cleaning, high-speed cooking/baking, or staring at a television show while feeling somewhat depressed that you are watching TV during the day. (One day, he will not nap at all. This is something I choose not to think about.) I was measuring flour for cookies, listening to This American Life, feeling my brain neurons turn back on, when I heard the first cry.
Defeated, I answered his call.
That evening, I was trying to get him to eat a pouch of pureed salmon because with his cold, he wouldn’t eat his usual foods. He had barely eaten a thing all day. He refused the pouch, too—but not before he saw the picture on the front of the smiling sun.
He pointed to the glowing sun with the smile on its face, which was smaller than a dime.
“Mama,” he said, with such warmth and affection, pointing to the pouch’s smiling sun. “Mama,” he said, pointing to me. Back and forth, pouch, me. Mama, mama. To him I am the smiling sun.
He has done this before, without prompting. With a playing card featuring a smiling sun. With a smiling-sun wooden chair at a local Mexican restaurant.
I thought in that moment that if I am the smiling sun to him, I must be—even in my weariness and impatience—doing something right.
The bigger challenge was Wednesday. I had been looking forward to Wednesday with fervor because I knew it was going to be my only me-time this week, due to all sorts of dr appt obligations and so on. Except it wasn’t. Because in the night, S woke up with a fever. He did not go to preschool Wednesday.
In the night, around 1 a.m., I scolded my husband for not knowing the second he picked up S that he was, in my words, “on fire” and needed Ty.lenol for fever for sure. I know the difference, the second I touch S, between a low-grade fever and a high one, and I was alarmed that my husband didn’t. (Particularly since he is going to Florida alone with S soon.) DH had been holding S for a while, S wailing and moaning, and he was not doing anything about it. Nothing was done until I woke up and dashed in. DH was furious with me for getting upset with him and the next day he sent me an email saying he did not understand my behavior, that we should have been a team.
How to explain the frustration I feel that he is simply… NOT me?
I never apologized, but I should have. Instead, in response to his email, I wrote back, “Please leave me alone. I can’t talk right now.” You know, some more A+ spousal behavior.
S woke up many, many more times in the night. I think I got a total of two hours of sleep. I was an absolute wreck the next day. That’s what I’ll blame my lame email on.
So I spent another long day with my toddler on Wednesday, my me-time spent in cortisol-land. He was crying so much, and almost nothing I did pleased him. On top of that, he was very out-of-character, being aggressive with me, pulling my glasses off my face, pushing me away, butting his head into my groin, digging his fingernails into my finger pads. Obviously he was incredibly frustrated by his cold symptoms, which had resurged big time. His fever came back off and on. I tried not take any of it personally and I didn’t, at least not consciously, but it’s difficult not to have some reaction. Unconditional positive regard, Winnicott’s holding environment—I know them well. But I felt pushed to the brink.
At a certain point, I tipped over that brink by bending over the kitchen counter and letting out an “Ahhhhhhhh!” I’m not proud. S heard me, and he started crying louder. Not A+ mother behavior. He came running, probably scared (I’m so sorry, buddy!), into my arms.
I was not compared to a smiling sun that day, but we did get through it. I held him a lot, danced with him gently through the rooms, which seemed to soothe him. I also jetted at dinner time to go get my hair done, and although I was worried about him, I was also glad to talk to another adult and read a book and just zone out. When I got back, he did not seem happy to see me. His last interaction with me, on the cushions in his nursery, was one of agitation, pushing me away. I kissed his forehead and told him I loved him so much and I hoped he slept well.
And he did.
This morning, there was my son again. My smiling son.
“Mama?” he said, confused, and I gathered his soft sweetness into my arms.
He is better. He was okay enough to go to preschool, and they said he had a great day. They said he is learning to set boundaries (he’s so small and gets knocked around a lot). I loved seeing his dirt-covered face as I walked up. He was playing with another boy. He was telling him something, going on and on, like I had never seen him talk to another kid. The other kid was listening intently. Then they climbed up on something and both fell back into the grass at the same time, going, “Woah!” A game, apparently, they had been playing.
And today, right now as I type, he is finally napping.
Now he is crying my name.
It’s time to scoop him up again.
And forgive myself for the past two days, for being human.