There is a defeated, sinking feeling I get when I arrive at my desk first thing in the morning to find that I’m already exhausted. My empty-nester boss looks at me in confusion when I enter the front office with Cheerios clinging to my suit, a hot purple hand-beaded necklace that spells out the word “M-O-M” and a pair of size five cupcake pajama pants sticking out of my briefcase. My legal assistant nods knowingly and usually says something sympathetic like, “there’s coffee?”
This particular morning I flumped down in my chair and glared at my calendar over the edge of my coffee cup. Booked. All day. The light on my phone was blinking out of the corner of my eye, and I could not stare it directly in the face. I didn’t want it to smell weakness and start ringing. I clicked over from the calendar to my email inbox. 112 messages were lined up, waiting for their chance to mock me, one by one. I clicked back to the calendar in defiance.
I rubbed my eyes. Despite staying up until midnight, I had somehow fumbled my way down the stairs at 5 a.m.to initiate Operation Reclaim the Booty by jumping headlong into my renewed fitness routine. I have refused to come to grips with my weight delusions for the last two months until I realized Husband has been working out daily – with SEALS – while I’ve been assuaging my stress with tacos. So naturally I resolved to undo eight months in eight weeks – which is why it’s not surprising that I fell and almost knocked over my water-glass attempting to do a jab-cross-hook-uppercut. I was actually disappointed when it miraculously remained standing because of the respite it would have provided to stay down there on the floor to clean it up.
Once I recovered and showered, the rest of the morning routine with the kids was equally painful. First, there wasn’t enough motivation in the world to get The Preschooler out of bed, and Sweet Pea was having a meltdown wardrobe crisis. I was perched on the top stair inquiring whether the boy child would be wearing his clothes on his body or in a bag when Sweet Pea interrupted to announce that she “needed” me to make her a lunch. By the time we arrived at school my makeup was only half on, and I was dubbed the unknowing elderly slob that didn’t understand the power of the second grade fashion police. I was also apparently the only mom in the history of all schoolchildren who refused to accommodate last-minute lunch requests, and to make matters worse I had permanently scarred The Preschooler for having to find and put on his own shoes, making it “the worst day” in his entire life. Sweet Pea announced, “No offense Mom, but if you and Dad weren’t together … I’d go live with Dad.” No offense kid, but me too.
As I peered into the daycare doors for a source of respite with my ragtag group of whiners, I saw the sign: “Welcome! Muffins with Moms.”
Crap. I forgot. This was the Mom version of Doughnuts with Dads. I looked at my watch. I had to be at a meeting in thirty minutes. Undaunted, I shoved the second-grader toward the school doors and moved fluidly to a table in the gym, smiling, and dragging The Preschooler with shoes on the wrong feet behind me. This was not going to be anything like Doughnuts with Dads. Not even a little.
“Oh, goodie! Let’s get a treat. Come on, sweetie, let’s spend some time together. Do you want juice? Sure, I’ll get a coffee. Here’s a muffin. Shove it in your mouth. Ha ha, just kidding. Not really. Pick up the crumbs. Don’t eat the crumbs off the table. Whoops, don’t spill your juice. I’ll throw that away for you. Are you done yet? Smile for the picture. *flash* Mommy loves you so much. Hurry up, eat your muffin baby. This is so much fun. No, you don’t want another one. Okay, FINE. Let’s just take this to your classroom. Alright? Okay, hang up your backpack, then. There you go! Give me a hug and a kiss. Mommy loves you, so fun having breakfast with you now I’m leaving. Bye! Love you! Mwah! Have a super day!”
The Preschooler was standing motionless, still wondering what had happened, as I walked away. By the time I reached the parking lot I noticed that he had plastered his sad face against the window and was pathetically waiving goodbye by pressing one hand against the glass like he was the captain going down in a sinking ship, saying his final farewell. I told myself, “he does that just to make me feel guilty.”
There was no time to dwell on the sad little face. I sped to the office, running down several people in crosswalks and spilling protein shake. And now here I was, ignoring the blinking light on the phone, staring despondently at the calendar from hell, and I was already four hours into my day with no “work” having yet been accomplished. I slugged down the coffee, and walked two blocks to my first meeting. When I returned I kept my head down, moving seamlessly from one task to another, clicking out emails at breakneck speed and slapping out the burning papers on my desk that were catching fire, one by one. I kept a watchful eye on the other piles too, particularly the ones that had already spontaneously caught fire and eventually extinguished themselves for lack of fuel, their smoldering embers threatening to reignite at any moment. I even got up the courage to douse the blinking phone light.
And then it happened. A jury trial was called off. Two afternoon meetings were cancelled. Smoking piles one, two, and three were extinguished with mere phone calls. A colleague updated me and an emergency became a theoretical second-rate advice request. I sat silently, stunned, and watched the emails and the dust settle for a moment. And I mean that literally, because for the first time that day my email wasn’t pinging, my phone wasn’t ringing, and I realized that the sun was shining. Bright shafts of light were streaming into my office, warming my desk. There was sun. In the Pacific Northwest. In the Spring.
I sat back in the chair, and with a moment to think, I recounted the morning’s events … the jolting wake-up, devoid of compassion. The breakfast bar offered as sustenance as we raced out the door. The “hurry up hurry up hurry up!” I barked as they exited the car and the “humph” of the backpack hitting the pavement, after I tossed it unexpectedly to The Preschooler, who wasn’t moving fast enough for my liking. The stunned look on his face as I guided him through the muffin whirlwind. The way he clung to me and demanded ten hugs and squeezed his eyes shut as I extricated myself from his grip and rushed out the door to make it to my very important meeting.
I actually heard my heart thunk-slop and fall down hard in my chest. What was I doing?
I looked at the desk. I looked at the calendar. I looked at the pictures just beyond the edge of my computer screen. And I resolved to somehow take advantage of the afternoon’s compassionate twist of fate.
The elation on The Preschooler’s face when I arrived at school completely erased the memory of the child pawing at the window that I had seen earlier that morning. I took him to lunch and he wiggled so much his lemonade sloshed out of the cup when he tried to take a drink. Between mouths full of chicken he smothered me with kisses so much that I was almost (almost) embarrassed. We shared a brownie and fought for bites and smiled with brown teeth and didn’t care.
After a quick tour of the office and some follow-up phone calls, we had the chance to stop at a nearby park. It was a blur of giggles and jumping and climbing and swinging. We were monkeys, and I was a monkey in a suit. It was moments of sunshine and leaping and skipping hand in hand. I was the only mom in the park in a skirt and heels, but I was also the only mom willing to get wet in the park fountain.
We finally rested for a bit near the fountain and let the sunshine and water mix with our good moods. As I watched him play in the water, I thought about the time I was taking away from the office and what a small sacrifice it was for me. In stark contrast, I compared how much these two short hours meant to The Preschooler. And frankly, how much they meant to me. I thought I was making some huge sacrifice to make him happy. But I wasn’t. It turns out this was actually for me, too. Parenting is always that way; it always ends up being more about me than the kids.
I’ve really been running on empty, lately and I expressed my exhaustion concerns to Husband. But after eight months in the desert his response understandably included such warrior-speak as “assessing your maximum capacity” and “refining the ability to issue direct immediate consequences against the insurgents.” Okay, got it. Well, not really.
I never remember to think of capacity as something finite. I remember being terribly concerned upon the birth of child #2 with having to divide my love between two children. But when I had that second child, my capacity for love merely multiplied. I’m constantly laboring under a false belief that if I just commit to more, it will all work out.
Let me tell you, that law does not apply to finite supplies like hours in the day, sleep, and sanity. There is just only so much to go around. But the fountain’s waters and one satisfied little face was enough to deluge my heart to overflowing. I was looking into the face of what really mattered. Moments.
“How can I keep doing all this?” I thought. “What is the point of killing myself to get all of these things done at breakneck speed? Why can’t I just be normal? Why can’t things just be the way they were before he left?”
I reluctantly announced that we had only five minutes left, and that our next destination was the dentist. The Preschooler was standing absolutely motionless and it was the first time he was still all day long. I braced for the melt-down. But he wasn’t upset – he was smiling. I moved closer.“What’s up, buddy?” “Magic.” “What? Where? What kind of magic!?” “There.”
He didn’t point. He just stared. So I came around and peered from behind him to see what he was looking at. And then I saw it, too. There was that darn rainbow, again. Suprising me. Reminding me. Giving me its word. Telling me that I could do it. For at least 40 more days and nights.
I held his hand and we stood in the mist together and smiled back at it. We talked about promises. We talked about Dad. And we talked about whatever he wanted to talk about. We headed off for the car, and there was a calm satisfaction in his smooth step. It wasn’t the attitude-laden strut The Preschooler usually garnered, and it wasn’t the worn-out dejected step of a child who was blaming his mother for the lack of socks in his drawer. It was confidence, and I had it again, too. After just two hours and very little effort on my part, we were both recharged. He seemed different. He seemed a little bit more like the kid I knew before his Daddy left. So that day wasn’t just a gift for him. It was a gift for me, too.
I mean really. Have you ever seen a kid this happy on his way to the dentist?