This One Goes Out To The Parents Of Young Children

by Gail Cornwall
knape / iStock

Don’t worry — I’m not going to tell you to treasure it. I remember the always having too much to manage and too little to offer, physically and emotionally. Who would want to hold that close, to savor the feeling of being torn down the center and gutted, every part of you used for all it’s worth, like the kill of an ecologically aware hunter?

I can still feel the knots in my back, right beneath my shoulder blades, which appeared after my third baby arrived. One day, I tried putting my 5- and 2-year-olds in the bathtub to contain their destructive potential long enough to nurse the baby. Sitting in the bathroom, with the edges of their too-small wooden stool digging into my legs, hunched over and jamming my raw nipple inside the newborn’s mouth while watching for signs of secondary drowning in the others should have been miserable, and it was, but it was also the day’s high, a life hack of the highest order. That said, afterwards the tub wasn’t the only thing completely drained.

Then the baby grew big enough to sit up on her own reliably, and the oldest learned to read. I could fill the bathtub with about 6 inches of water, squeeze the baby and now-3-year-old into the far end, and step into the shower, while my first-grader curled up with a book nearby. I couldn’t shave or anything indulgent like that, and they needed pacifiers so as not to drink the shampoo suds that floated down my body and over to them, but still, I could wash my hair!

I thought about those two old routines yesterday as the three of them climbed in the tub. Now that they’re 7, 5, and 2 1/2, I can leave the room. If I turn off the music and keep an ear out for sudden thuds, splashing, or shouts, it’s safe to finish the dishes and sweep the kitchen while they bathe. I listen to their echoed chatter, the mind-bogglingly cute scenarios (“Okay, so I’m the baby, and you’ll be the dragon, and she’s the manager”), and my face remembers how to smile.

I get to exercise now too. The youngest sits in the stroller with a pile of board books while the “bigs” ride scooters beside me. “Let’s race, Mommy. Go faster, Mommy, faster!” Someone inevitably falls or gets bored, but I chalk the TLC stops up to interval training.

I still have moments and days when I long for mild appendicitis, just a few hours by myself with someone else cooking and cleaning, but little by little, they lose frequency. I’m like a dog who’d always been held close to heel after her owner gets a retractable leash for Christmas. Sometimes I’m still stuck, but often I’ve got space to roam, to see to my business in peace.

And it’s not because the kids are surly teenagers who lock themselves away behind doors or emotional walls. Every night my son still asks, “Will you come in my bed?” And every night I do. I pause for questions during story time, no longer needing to race through the pages so I can pack lunches, because now I do that while they’re drying off their own bodies, stowing their own dirty clothes in the hamper, putting on their own pajamas, and choosing their own books.

Yes, many opportunities for connection raced by in a blur of triage, but I didn’t miss out. It turns out there’s plenty of time between the darkness of the postpartum years and the desertion to follow. I sit on the floor building loop after loop of train tracks. I play chase at the playground. I snuggle. Now I cherish the moments, trying to capture them in some sort of memory Mod Podge. I turn “No, I to do it” around in my head, memorizing the way her little brow furrows and lips purse in determination.

They say the hours are long and the years are short, and it’s true. But, also, there comes a time when the hours are just right and so are the years, when slowing down and breathing in the love doesn’t require fighting your own survival impulse.

So don’t feel guilty for not whistling, for not always remembering to turn “no” into “yes.” Do what you have to do to get through today. The roses will be there when you have the bandwidth to stop and smell them. At least, mine are. Their scent beckons, and I don’t have to think twice before burying my nose in their velvety little necks.


Mom of a Slightly Older Child