“I know! It’s soooo embarrassing,” I heard my 9-year-old, Sam, say to his 6-year-old twin brothers.
“What’s embarrassing?” I asked, walking into our toy room, where they were building with Legos.
“This,” Sam gestured impatiently with a swirling motion meant to encompass all the things. “This toy room. It’s full of baby stuff!” The twins nodded in agreement emphatically. “These pictures are so weird! Plus, they’re just taped to the walls,” Sam added scornfully, pointing to the sweet little works of art he and his brothers had created over the years at home, in preschool and now in elementary school.
I blinked and took a step back to get a better view of the room.
The walls were covered with toy soldiers and water-colored gingerbread men made at Christmastime and hearts glued to notepaper, where “All the Reasons We Love Mommy” were written for Valentine’s Day. There were leprechaun puppets made from paper bags with orange yarn glued on for the hair and little springtime daisies featuring the round faces of my twins attached to green pipe cleaner stems. There was a life-sized outline of Sam from when he was just 4 as well as the All About Me posters for all three boys that we painstakingly created when they entered kindergarten.
Sam has undoubtedly seen what some other moms do with their children’s playrooms. They have the creativity, energy and motivation to get their kids’ artwork framed, put them in cute shadow boxes and create wonderful gallery walls where the masterpieces can be tastefully displayed in their homes.
When my kids’ toy room had first come to life, I was barely showing vitals myself. My husband and I moved with our 3-year-old son and 5-day-old twins to our newly built house when I was still recovering from a C-section. My in-laws unpacked all the boxes, chose which cabinets and drawers to put kitchen things in and arranged all the furniture. I sat, helpless, holding or feeding one baby or the other or both, and I honestly didn’t care where things went in my brand new home. I simply wasn’t capable of summoning the inspiration or energy to do anything other than care for my kids and try to minimize the crying (theirs and mine).
For the next three years, my husband and I were in the trenches of parenthood, and I counted it a productive day just to work in some playtime amidst getting all the kids fed, diapered and asleep for naps or nighttime. Did I sometimes look around my house, compare it to other women’s and see all the glaring organized, feminine, crafty, decorative touches that were so sorely lacking in mine? Of course I did. But instead of charging up my nonexistent Martha Stewart on Crack batteries at the end of the day, I would have a glass of wine, watch some mindless TV with my husband, shut my eyes and go to sleep by 10 p.m. so that I wouldn’t feel half-dead when my kids woke me the next morning.
As a result, day after day, year after year, our house remained sparsely decorated, unpainted, with no pictures on the walls save for one room only: the toy room. The half-assed, haphazard, sloppy, embarrassing toy room. Delighting in any and all of my kids’ handiwork, even if it were as simple as some paint splotches in a single color on a piece of half-torn paper, I got out the Scotch tape, and I found a bare splash of stark white wall to adorn. These decorative efforts of a tired, un-crafty mother were the least, and the most, I could give at the time.
A lot has changed now that my kids are 9, 6 and 6. My house’s interior still isn’t painted, but there are lots more decorative touches than there were when I was in the trenches. Since we got the basement finished, the kids hardly even play in the toy room anymore, but I still dutifully tape all their artwork from school to its lonely walls.
I was still squinting my eyes, looking at the toy room and trying to see it through the eyes of the people who were embarrassed by it—the eyes of the people who helped to create it, people I was so busy caring for and caring about that I couldn’t have possibly managed its genesis in a less embarrassing way.
When I tried widening my eyes and turning around and around, not only was I seeing the dizzying panorama of a room covered in tape and multicolored construction paper, I was seeing the kind of mother I was. The kind of mother I am: An imperfect, messy, tired, limited, fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants kind of mother. A mother who kisses boo-boos, reads stories, pushes swings, goes to baseball games, soothes worries, helps with homework, makes meals, hosts playdates and plans birthday parties. A mother who—after all of that—could dog herself and her last remnants of energy out, just so she could make her house look like something out of a Pottery Barn catalog, but the kind of mother who chooses instead to rejuvenate her own damn self at the end of the day. The kind of mother who, after the kids have everything they need to simply survive, takes that dwindling vestige of energy, gets out the Scotch tape and makes sure her kids know she’s proud of them.
I took a deep breath as I started carefully removing the taped edges of a rainbow fish from the toy room wall. I didn’t know how long it would take to turn this room back into one that wasn’t embarrassing or what the hell I was going to do with this room, or even if I figured all that out I would even be up to the task. The fish, flapping halfway off the wall, stared back at me accusingly with one of his crooked, haphazardly placed sequined eyes. I stared back at him and thought, This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.