The other day, I popped into the kitchen for a moment to make lunch for my 2-year-old son. I left him in the middle of the living room floor contentedly occupied with a handful of washable dry erase markers and a drawing board on which he was practicing his frenetic Jackson Pollock creations. When I returned just a few minutes later, the markers had vanished. A little pile of their caps was all that remained.
I checked under the couch and behind the cushions—the usual hiding spots. Perhaps he had tucked them under the rug. Or hidden them in the closet. Maybe he brought them into the dining room and lined them up along the shelves of our big wooden hutch the way he so often does with his hot wheels cars. No, no, and no. I couldn’t find them anywhere, and when I asked him where they had gone, my voice cracking with rising frustration and panic, he either couldn’t remember, or was unwilling to reveal his secret.
I pictured the markers tucked into some unseen corner, their ink slowly spreading into fabric, staining and further ruining furniture that, if I’m being honest, was pretty well destroyed by our cat and dog long before our adorable little mischief-maker came along. But just the thought of it, and the recognition that this was my fault for taking my eyes off him and leaving him alone with such an ill-advised distraction—it was too much to bear, and I burst into tears. It was not the first time I had broken down in front of my young child, and it won’t be the last.
Parenting a toddler is a bit like starring in a Stanley Kubrick film: you have to show up to set at the crack of dawn and spend all day with a tiny narcissist demanding you repeat the same actions over and over again until he’s finally satisfied. On a good day, I’m the consummate professional. I can go with the flow, jump out from behind a pillow and yell peek-a-boo over and over, and just brush it off when he gets mad at me for somehow not doing it right. But when my mood drops, and the shifting tide pulls that all-too-familiar feeling of empty despair towards my shore, it’s like it’s my first time stepping onto a set and I’m in way over my head. Every bit of negative feedback from my demanding director—and there’s a lot of criticism to be received in a mother’s day-to-day experience—every insistence that I play my scene again and again, and do it better this time, sends me careening to the edge of my emotions. I just cling there all day, barely holding back tears and using every ounce of strength I have to maintain my grip.
Then the markers go missing and my hand slips. Or my energetic playmate shouts “monkey chase weasel again!” and races off around the coffee table for the tenth time in a row, and my tired body, weighed down as though my depression was a pair of boulders strapped around my ankles, cannot manage one more lap around the mulberry bush, no matter how much I want to please him, how desperate I am to avoid dampening his sweet spirit.
Sometimes it’s actually his sweetness that breaks me. Like the time he was quietly driving one of his trucks along the edge of the couch. He looked up to see me watching him from across the room and a wide smile shot across his face, delighted to find me sitting there despite the fact that just five minutes earlier he had banished me to that very spot when I wasn’t doing a good enough job of driving the trucks along his imaginary highway. But still, that smile. My heart cracked open and the tears I had been working so hard to keep at bay came spilling down my cheeks. Here I was, failing us both so miserably in ways big and small throughout the day, and he loved me so much anyway.
As parents, we try so hard to protect our kids: from pain, heartache, an ever-growing list of real-world monstrosities. My son recently lost his favorite toy. My husband and I have been claiming that Orange Pickup is on vacation while we search for a replacement. I even came up with the potential idea of sending him letters from Orange Pickup. Postcards from his best friend describing all the amazing places he’s visited, the sights he’s seen. Perhaps one day, a letter will arrive explaining that even though he will miss us so very much, Orange Pickup has fallen in love with the French Riviera, and has decided to settle down there.
What we should probably do is tell our son that Orange Pickup is lost. Sometimes we lose things and they don’t come back. It’s sad, but it’s okay. But our children are little dreamers for such a short time. Life’s magic disappears so quickly. So we’re searching for a replacement and looking forward to the day Orange Pickup returns from his big adventure with tons of exciting stories to share.
Just as I’m not ready to break my son’s heart with the news that his favorite toy is gone forever, I’m also not ready to explain to him that Mommy is depressed. Depression is a confusing concept. For children, sure, but for adults as well. I’ve lived with depression for most of my life and I still don’t understand it sometimes. Why does it appear when everything in my life feels like it’s working fine? Why is it sometimes impervious to all the tricks and techniques I’ve used to manage it in the past? It’s a big conversation for a later date, when he’s a little older.
But I can already tell that my depression is affecting him. My mood drops and suddenly my sunny, smiley boy is frustrated and grumpy, prone to tenderness and quick to tears. When I cry, it unnerves him. He tears up too, or starts running through a list of all the bumps and stumbles he’s had over the past week, fixating on the little aches and pains he’s endured. I want to tell him that this isn’t really me, it’s just a mask that slips over my face every now and then. I want to assure him that Mommy, the real Mommy who laughs and chases him and will shout peek-a-boo until her voice turns hoarse, is still there. Or if she’s not there, she’s not lost. She’s just off somewhere, like Orange Pickup, and will be coming back very soon. She’s just tucked away out of sight, like the markers. If I keep looking, I will find her. She’s here somewhere. Eventually, I’ll discover her hiding spot.