I dream of waking up at 5 a.m.
Let me rephrase that: I dream of waking up in a very particular way at 5 a.m.
In this dream, I quietly creep down the stairs, careful not to disturb the silence of the house. I make a cup of coffee, and then I sit, alone, in the quiet, sipping my coffee and watching the latest episode of whatever guilty pleasure I feel like binging. Sometimes in this dream, I refill my coffee mid-episode, and return to my spot in the couch, undisturbed. Other times, I just sit, and sit, and sit until the episode is over and I drink the last, sugary drop in my cup, peaceful and energized. Then, at 6:15, my husband and children wake up and I have had a full hour to myself before the wildness of the day begins.
What a dream.
See, my days do start at 5 a.m., but not at all in the way I just described. My 5 a.m. starts with a loud, feral bellow from my son’s room. He’s been making noise since 4:30, but at 5:00 he’s really ready. And because we don’t want him to wake up our daughter, who torturously enjoys sleeping until 7 a.m., we respond to his call. And because we are trying to stay sane, we alternate mornings. Because when this boy awakes, he awakes with the fire and passion of a thousand suns. Like any 19-month old, he is inquisitive and mischievous, but this boy is also really, really loud. And a little bit destructive.
So, we come downstairs and I spend the first hour of my day trying to keep him as quiet as possible. “BABA! BABA!,” he yells as we hit the landing. He wants his morning bottle, now. No, not now, like a minute ago, or earlier. It’s already too late. “BABA!!!,” he screams and thrashes as I struggle to fill his bottle from a full gallon while balancing his flailing self on my hip. Because doing that is a nearly impossible task, it almost always spills. My 5 a.m. starts with screaming and spilled milk.
The next two hours look something like this.
My son drinks his bottle while watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. We snuggle for five blissful minutes, then I try to change his diaper while he’s distracted, but it still feels like wrestling an alligator. He spills his bottle on the couch, first by accident. Then, mesmerized by the tiny white droplets suspended by the fabric cross-hairs, he starts smashing the bottle, nipple-side down, anywhere within his reach. This fun activity moves from the couch to the ground, to his toys, to, when I’ve finally caught him, the shoes by the door. All victims of a pretty little calcium-laced shower.
When I take his bottle away, he gets very, very, angry. I try, again, to keep him quiet. I find a toy to distract him and he of course gravitates toward the other toys that make the most noise. He is pushing his mini-shopping cart from one room to the next, crashing into walls with delight, yelling, “VROOM! VROOM!” It’s only 5:30.
At this point, I sneak into the kitchen to make coffee. From the corner of his eye, he sees my attempt to move independently and is totally against it. He follows me into the kitchen, yelling and strutting like a little dictator, shoulders high, fists clenched behind his back, stomach puffed out as if there were a little string attached to his navel and someone on the other end, pulling him forward. “APPLE!” he demands. “Are you sure you don’t want a banana?” I ask, showing him both fruits. “APPLE!” Yes, sir. You got it.
While I wait for my coffee to brew, I peel and slice his apple. I put the pieces in a bowl and place it on the table in front of him. He takes one look in the bowl and is completely offended. With the swipe of an arm, the apples and the bowl are on the ground. In a desperate attempt to both not waste the apple and try to teach him that if he asks for an apple, he should eat the apple, I pick up the pieces, put them in a covered snack container, and hand it back to him. I probably say something like, “Apples are for eating, not for throwing.”
After I pour my coffee, I turn around and find him taking the apple pieces out of the container, one by one, and throwing them on a ground. He thinks it’s hilarious. He looks at me, smiling wide, and thunders, “BANANA!” It’s 6 o’clock.
The next half hour involves me making him breakfast, feeding myself, and packing lunches for the day. I drink my coffee standing, or often in full-motion, getting ice-packs, cutting fruit, cleaning the four million crumbs he’s left behind. At 6:30, my daughter wakes up. Not because she wants to, but because while I’ve been doing all that, he’s made his way to the keyboard. See, we dug out my husband’s old Casio and put it on the dining room table for the kids to play with because, like any parents, we’re certain there’s a little Mozart lurking inside one of them. While my son does dabble with the keys from time to time, his top choice is the built-in background beat, straight from 1989, at full volume. So, I want you to picture everything that happens from this point forward happening with ‘80s track music blasting in the background.
My daughter begrudgingly makes her way downstairs. And like any four-year-old who should have slept longer, she’s made it a priority to be uncooperative. The list of demands starts. She wants breakfast, but not right now. She doesn’t want to go to school. She wants to wear pajamas today. She wants to wear pajamas every day. My husband leaves early for work, and she wants to see him. She refuses to believe that it’s impossible. She wants nothing to do with me. After some time, and after getting her to eat a breakfast that took minutes of deliberation and negotiation, struggling to get her dressed, brush her teeth, and, the holy grail moment, use the potty, I put my son in the playpen, start an episode of Sesame Street, and finally escape upstairs to get ready for work.
It is this moment, in my bathroom, when I look at myself in the mirror and realize, first, that my hair didn’t magically dry into beachy waves like I’d hoped it would, that I would have to make myself look presentable and professional in less than twenty minutes, and that I’ve been awake for two hours, haven’t stopped moving, but still feel like I’ve accomplished nothing. I start to strategically wrap my curling iron around select bits of hair, hoping to morph from “a frazzled wreck” to “less frazzled,” when my daughter calls me with such urgency that I think something horrible has happened and wonder if I accidentally left a burner on.
“MOM!” she screams again. I get to the edge of the stairs, phone in hand certain there is an emergency. “I’m coming!” I yell desperately. She finishes her thought with the same “the kitchen is on fire!” tone, “MOM! The letter of the day is E!”
I finally get myself dressed, change another diaper, get jackets on, break up several civil wars over who gets to play with the pink doll (the other three dolls just aren’t acceptable options), load the car, get both kids in their car seats (sometimes the car seats just feel like THE LAST STRAW) and, before driving to work, drop both kids off at school.
By the time I sit down at my desk at 9 a.m., a whole day has unfolded. I have cooked, cleaned, negotiated, taught. My blood pressure has peaked a dozen times. I feel like I’ve climbed mountains. I feel like I’ve moved mountains. I am exhausted. As humorous as these mornings can be, the truth is that, as a working mom, they are mostly stressful. They are stressful because you are working within a time limit that your kids don’t, and can’t, understand. This is stressful because you need them to work with you, and they almost always don’t want to, and you get frustrated, and then you get sad because you don’t want to start your day by being angry with your kids. It is stressful because every morning is like this, and then you still have a day full of work-stresses ahead of you. This is stressful because, let’s face it, your boss doesn’t care about what your life looks like before you get to work, but will care if you’re late.
The most stressful thing, though, is that I know I am fortunate to have these mornings, but I can’t help but dread them. I want to appreciate and relish in these funny little moments, but there’s always a clock ticking.
Clearly, I haven’t figured this morning thing out. However, after so many of these mornings, I’ve discovered a few tricks that make the process a little easier:
1. Prepare all school stuff the night before.
Backpacks, lunches, everything. Have them ready to go. Do this as you’re cleaning up dinner so it feels like part of one chore instead of a separate chore. (Because we all know nights are wild, too!)
2. Keep breakfast SIMPLE.
Wanting my kids to start the day healthy, I used to take the time to make vegetable omelets. It was too much. Now, a multigrain waffle with honey instead of syrup keeps it somewhat healthy and very fast. I pack veggies in their lunch. This is more effective because it is their only option at lunch, whereas at home they know the goldfish are hiding somewhere.
3. Use a rewards chart.
At 4, my daughter wants to feel like she’s helping. Sometimes, she just needs a little motivation. Pajamas off and clothes on? Gold star!
4. Keep a play pen (we use a pack and play) open and easy to access.
For awhile, I didn’t want the pack and play in our living room. I felt like it ruined the aesthetic and took up too much space. Who cares! It has truly been the best thing to have for my wild guy. I know he is contained and safe, because I can’t possibly be with him all the time and do all of the other things I need to do in the morning!
I know a day will come when they will be more self-sufficient. It feels like it’s ages away, but it is there, on the horizon. It will get easier. Right?