Yes, The Days Are Long And The Years Are Short, But That Doesn't Make It Any Easier
An excerpt from Kelly Ripa’s new book, Live Wire: Long-Winded Short Stories.
I remember the exhaustion being overwhelming, but not as overwhelming as the sense of joy, purpose, and the intense love that overrode any need for sleep, or clean clothes, or a hot shower.
Although I still desired basic hygiene, it suddenly and eternally took a secondary role. I just wanted to look at them all the time. Stare at them all the time. Watch them change minute by minute, while simultaneously willing them to stay exactly as they were, right then and there.
The them being our children.
The me declaring every single phase my favorite.
Each of them.
It never got less exciting.
But . . .
It never got less exhausting. Everyone told us to cherish those moments because they’d grow up and be out of the nest in the blink of an eye. Our parents told us. Our friends with grown kids told us. Strangers told us. They tried to prepare us.
They warned us!
However . . .
Bestowing that advice on people who haven’t slept in five to eighteen years isn’t helpful in real time because to the tired people, anything positive seems impossible to believe. But those words did come back in waves as the deadline drew ever nearer to The Emptying, with each little chicken leaving our nest in the order in which they arrived. With each departure, Mark would comfort me that we still had two more in the nest, then, one more in the nest. Then, he started thinking of ways to distract from the impending empty nest. I started thinking how the phrase “empty nest” sounded like the word “emptiness.” Was reality trolling us?
As my kids left, the anxiety attacks started as I thought back on all the things I should have paid more attention to. Did I drink in the baby smell enough? There is nothing quite as intoxicating as the smell of a baby. Could I conjure it now? Did I kiss the boo-boos away enough? Did I teach them how to kiss away their own boo-boos when I wasn’t nearby? Did I listen to their laughter enough? Could I recall each giggle when I needed a pick-me-up? Did I give them enough reasons to laugh? Did I listen to their sorrow enough? Or did I tell them to suck it up? Was I nurturing enough? Was I protective enough? Was I mommy enough? Was I enough, enough?
And so, I kept dwelling on all the things that I missed or forgot or left undone — all the morning drop-offs that I missed, the permission slip I forgot to sign, the homework I didn’t check, and then found in my purse days later. The special after-school snack I was supposed to include in the lunch box the day the kids had play rehearsal. The day I forgot to bring the costumes to play rehearsal.
All the wisdom I sort of half instilled in my kids because taking the shortcut to wisdom was easier at the time.
I began reminiscing scenes from their childhood, including the many nights we crammed together into one little bed because my kids loved to sleep like a pack of kittens when they were young. I have vivid memories of reading “Hansel and Gretel” to them over and over, as for some reason, it was their favorite. It was a story I had also loved as a kid, because I found the pictures of the gingerbread house to be enchanting, and my children were also enthralled by the whimsical fantasy cottage made of sugar and candy. To them, and my childhood self, that was to be the focal point of the entire book. But reading that story as an adult, I saw it differently. That is some dark stuff. Even the updated, less horrifying version, is still rather horrifying. So, I started making small edits here and there to make it a little more “child-friendly.” I would change a word, or gloss over something sinister. I would skip an entire page if it was potentially nightmare inducing.
There was an unmistakable and troubling trend in most of the stories I read to my kids, be it the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, or Hans Christian Andersen. It was as if these authors all worked from the same playbook. The mother is almost always missing — dead, or mysteriously unmentioned, or generally not present — and in her place is an evil stepmother, or an evil stepsister. Or an evil queen. Or an evil witch. The fathers are almost always benevolently present and hapless and more often than not, inert. They are powerless to stop the wicked female from torturing the children, and usually complicit in the evil deeds she commits against the creatures she deems so burdensome. So, the moral of these stories was, it’s never too early to start conditioning the children of the world to be little misogynists.
But I didn’t mention any of that at the time. I didn’t say, “You know, Joaquin, the house may look delicious, sure, but why is every woman in this story portrayed as an evil witch? What do those Brothers Grimm have against their mother anyway?” Or “Lola, listen, I’m not sure where Snow White’s mom is, or why her stepmother is completely homicidal over her young stepdaughter’s looks, but comparing your looks to anyone else’s is a fool’s errand, as is sitting around waiting to be rescued by some prince.” Or “Michael, just because a young woman seems trapped in a tower and in desperate need of a haircut, doesn’t mean she’s actually trapped. It’s more of a metaphor for the struggle women face in every aspect of life. Especially in finding a good, reasonably priced haircut.”
But I didn’t say any of that, which in hindsight, was the right call. The kids probably would have thought I was having a nervous breakdown. And maybe I was. Thinking about those nights of bedtime stories now, I laugh at the way I tried to edit the world for my children. This was my attempt to make them feel safe, like the world outside our front door was not going to be tricky, or dangerous, or scary. I wanted them to feel as safe and as cozy as we all did those nights, bundled up in that bed, reading books. I certainly never wanted them to know how I felt when I woke up with a kink in my neck from falling asleep, surrounded by my kids and books and stuffed animals. Exhausted to the point of tears, but with no time to cry because I had to get ready for work. And work. And work.
Those days felt so long, like they’d last forever.
It was one of those long days when a woman approached me in the Fairway near our apartment as I was attempting to push a double stroller with a child skateboard attachment on the back, down one of the aisles. If you don’t live in New York City, you might not understand what a preposterous feat that was. We have no mega stores in the city. No Costco. No Publix. We recently got a Target on the Upper East Side, but I hear it sucks. So, there was no space for one human being in the aisle, much less one pushing two kids in a double stroller, with a third behind the stroller on a skateboard.
As the woman approached, I remember the feeling of dread, and started to mentally prepare to defend myself over having an obstructive Land Cruiser in such a prohibitive space. I reminded myself that I had just as much right as she did to pay quadruple the price for my broccoli as she did, even with my kids in that stroller.
I squared off, pulling the stroller back and attempting to turn it around in case some shit went down. The entire movement turned into a thirteen-point turn — which was very irritating, if not exhausting.
Then, the woman did something I never saw coming, she smiled at me and said, “Just remember, sweetheart, the days are long, but the years are short.” Then, she leaned down and cooed at the kids, who were sleeping, and told Michael she could tell he was a good big brother. Michael puffed up at the compliment.
I focused on her words.
The days are long, but the years are short.
Of course, at the time, those words were like a foreign language. I wanted to say, “Listen lady, the years are long, too. Wanna know the last time I showered all my body parts at the same time?” But instead, I said, “Oh yes . . . Sorry about the stroller . . .” I was in that place of the forever apology, whether or not it was warranted. I was so tired and brittle. But I was also incredibly relieved to be given words of kindness and attempted encouragement that I may have cried but pretended it was allergies.
From LIVE WIRE by Kelly Ripa. Copyright © 2022 by Mark’s Wife LLC. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.