Last week my toddler hit a new high in the sleep department, making it through three nights with nary a peep. Energized, I picked my 6- and 4-year-olds up from school and announced, in my most Oprah of tones, “We’re going to the beeeeeeach!” (You get a beach trip! And you get a beach trip! And you get a beach trip!) The next day, I took my middle child, who needed some extra attention, on a tour of the Mrs. Grossman’s sticker factory. I also managed to cook for a preschool work shift, support one of my best friends, and attend a world premiere at the San Francisco Ballet. “Because,” I gleefully posted on Facebook, “apparently, 20 months after number three’s birth, we officially have a life again.”
My husband and I returned home to a different performance: our baby starring in “I can’t breathe through my nose.” Sleeping that night in 20-minute stretches, I awoke feeling like I’d succumbed to whistle-shots on the last night of an epic spring break.
Then I spent the morning on the phone trying to sort out our property taxes. As I hung up, my 4-year-old climbed up on my bed, said “read and cuddle now, Mama,” and tossed my beige ornamental pillows into a pool of black paint on the floor.
So that’s how he managed to stay quiet during the call, I thought, and then tears welled up of their own accord. I hurried to the bathroom to let them roll down, chased by cries of “I’m sorry, Mommy. I’m sorry!”
Sleep deprivation clearly played a part in my reaction. There’s also the fact that a $1,000 penalty still loomed at a time when things are so tight that I’ve been buying my least favorite mayo brand to save $1.37. Guilt too. I wanted to snuggle my little boy, to bask in the smiles my complete focus invariably elicits. But I also didn’t—I wanted to get some shit done.
Mostly though, I blame the abrupt fall from grace. Sometimes feeling like supermom—on top of the world, flying high in terms of accomplishment and ability to enjoy the children—makes the human moments doubly disappointing.
Like whiplash. Full steam ahead, woo-hoo! And then, bam, full stop.
I call it kidlash.
Years of trying to put words to the concept left me with pairings from some memorably uneven days, the highs and lows of parenting:
High: The baby pulled herself up to stand for the first time at breakfast eliciting a spontaneous eruption of hoots and hollers from her older siblings.
Low: My son, angry that I’d dropped everything to pick up his called-home-sick older sister, looked me in the eye and said, “You are trash.” He meant it literally, but still.
High: My husband took the kids to the playground. I got to spend such a long time reading in the tub that when their voices echoed down the hallway, the normal dread was replaced by “Let’s play spa!” My oldest joined me in the bath, offering me such luxurious services as a cup rolled over my scalp repeatedly. I even washed and brushed her hair without protest for the first time in the history of ever.
Low: At bedtime she wouldn’t be quiet, continuously rousing her siblings with pressing concerns such as “Do you know that chimpanzees are the closest living thing to humans” and “I need to get a book about hermit crabs.” She also said, “Stuff with Jevon is getting better,” and “I hate being the youngest in my class because everyone says I’m too short.” It went on and on. Exasperated and desperate to watch Nashville, I hissed at her, wiping that smile right off her face and putting a sock in her sharing of life’s concerns.
High: My son was too sick to move and full of cuddles.
Low: I was delighted that my son was too sick to move and full of cuddles.
High: I finished paying the bills with enough time to happily listen as my son sang me a song about “five little bunnies in a bakery shop, the kind with the sugar and the honey on top.” We even turned graham crackers into rabbits by adding mini-marshmallow cottontails, the two of us bursting into a fit of giggles as he dramatically chomped each one.
Low: When he wouldn’t stop hurling insults at his sister that afternoon, I got so angry that I grabbed his jaw to force eye contact. “You are mean,” he screamed. “You are the worst mommy, and I won’t come to your birthday party even if there’s yellow cake with chocolate frosting.”
These hourly swings are brutal, but kidlash on a monthly and yearly scale is what really guts me. Sitting in the dark that day, holding my husband’s hand as Classical music filled the room and athletes completed feats of grace onstage, I thought we were emerging from the postpartum tunnel. I could feel the light on my face. Then that cold virus came at us, and I was thrust back into darkness, the promise of sleep and room for error just a pinprick off in the distance once more.
It’s been happening for six years.
Through it all, I’ve managed to keep one nice thing. It took me a decade and several sets of bedding, but my husband learned that throw pillows cannot be washed and therefore must never be used to prop up one’s head or feet. Yes, he gave me no end of grief for it—”So it’s like the food you put out at a party for guests, the stuff that I’m not allowed to eat because it’s particularly delicious?”—but he still dutifully piled my “ornamentals” on a clean surface every evening before climbing into bed.
I thought the pillows had made it, that a small piece of me would come out the other end unscathed. So I cried.
And then I lost myself in my son’s embrace and the magic of a good book.