Once upon a time, a stomach virus swept through my house like the Black Plague through 14th-century Europe, felling everyone in its gruesome path. My two oldest, who were 8 and under, were just beginning to recover when — in the middle of the night, because of course — my then-3-year-old ran into the bathroom. Only because he wasn’t yet old enough to recognize the universal feelings of “I’m gonna barf,” he threw up all the way from his bedroom, leaving a trail across the carpet.
His commotion woke the baby, who began to cry. My husband was working nights, so there was no one to call for help. I snatched up the baby and held him as I went to tend to my (still-hurling) toddler. When I got to the bathroom, I discovered that not only was he throwing up, but pooping too — at the same time. Straight liquid. All over his pajamas, all over the bath mat, all over the floor.
I stood there wide-eyed, holding a now-screaming infant, watching my toddler soil himself and the entire bathroom like that scene from The Exorcist, with every fiber of my being screaming, “What the fuck?!” And then?
I felt a hot cascade of vomit drench my back. The baby was sick now too.
Needy. Holy crap on a cracker, kids are needy when they’re little, even when they’re not infested with a heinous stomach bug. They demand your attention at all hours, regardless of whether you’re trying to sleep or eat or bathe or take a dump. Someone is always, always requiring something of you: a meal, a diaper change, comforting, coddling, nurturing, nursing, bathing, wiping, buckling, tying, snapping, chauffeuring. You’re so busy tending to everyone else’s constant stream of needs that you can’t even tend to your own. You’re not even 100% sure what those needs are any more.
Parenting babies and small children is a long and grueling journey, an uphill trudge laboring under the crushing weight of trying to get it right. Some days the sense of duty can be defeating. It feels endless, and you can hardly wait for a time when your offspring are capable of caring for themselves. People keep assuring you that time will come — and quickly — but you’re so deep in the trenches (and exhausted) that you can only envision it hazily, like the way you pictured yourself becoming a super-famous celebrity when you were a kid: awesome to fantasize about, something to hope for, but tinged with a sobering dose of “never gonna happen.”
But then one day, your toddler uses the potty without you putting them there. They pull up their pants on their own, and their pudgy fingers are suddenly coordinated enough to fasten them. They start to get their own snacks out of the fridge, throw wrappers in the trash can, put dishes in the sink, taking baby steps away from babyhood.
You start to notice the limbs becoming longer and leaner, the words becoming clearer, the vocabulary getting larger. And you pause, like a rollercoaster reaching its pinnacle, realizing that your “baby” is beginning to need you less and less. Then the roller coaster pitches downward, and things happen in a blur. They gain new skills, becoming independent little people. They start to do things for themselves — wipe their own asses, for starters — and it is awesome.
My youngest just turned 4, and he can dress himself. OK, so maybe it’s a striped shirt and plaid shorts (backwards), but he did it on his own. His shoes may be on the wrong feet, but he put them there himself. He’s working on brushing his teeth unassisted and can pour himself a bowl of cereal, even if he does require a little assistance with the milk. Don’t get me wrong — it isn’t that older kids don’t present new challenges — but they’re not the constantly demanding type, and the feeling of liberation is profound and wonderful. Sometimes I can actually take an uninterrupted shower now.
Slowly but surely, my roller coaster is pulling into the station, and I can breathe again. And so will you. I promise.