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Friday, March 27, 2015

The Slow-Motion Train Wreck

Life with children is always evolving and changing.  When I had one child I was able to pretty much ignore her all day long while I went about my usual business being a stay-at-home mom.  She would make noise when she got bored and need feeding, but really it wasn't too bad.  Then the second came.  There was a lot of stress involved with keeping the first from maiming or hurting the second, but there were two and so I could manage it.  Three was pretty hard because I had three babies all at once - a three year-old baby, and eighteen month-old baby and a newborn baby.  But still I was able to keep it together.  By the time the youngest started being a real factor in the household life, the two oldest were able to keep each other company.  Everything took longer, but I got used to starting bedtime routines at four in the afternoon.

Four was more work, but Kathleen was pretty independent, and so I was able to juggle everything and still keep the household running by having about sixteen hands.  I didn't have any help, but with two reasonably independent, I only had two to mind, and by that point the baby was the easy one.

Now I have five.  Well, I've actually had five for almost a year now.  Five, just in case you were wondering, is starting to be a lot of children.  Five is an especial lot when they were had over a 7 1/2 year stretch.  That means that not only do I have five, but not one of them is old enough to babysit, cook dinner, or independently clean a kitchen.

Five is enough that I physically cannot take care of every single need that each child has.  Maybe I could, but I think that it would come at the cost of my sanity and precious, necessary personal downtime.  When Eleanor has a poopy diaper and Sophia can't find her reading book and Edwin is hitting Joseph I literally can't take care of all of those things at the same time.  Somebody's got to wait or fix the problem themselves or ask someone else for help.  There are enough independent entities with enough personal problems and interpersonal interactions that at least once and hour there are two simultaneous crises.  Do I fetch Joseph off the top of the box stack or snatch the chocking hazard from Eleanor's slimy baby grasp?  Do I keep the onions from burning or stop Joseph from splashing all of the bath water onto the bathroom floor?  Do I break up a yet another fight or finish the lesson that has already been interrupted ten times?

And so, I cope.  I used to feel like a one-man juggling act, catching every singe ball just before it hit the floor, personally keeping everything in the entire household moving.  I would start dinner, get to a point where it could wait, bathe and dress the children, put the baby to bed, come back and finish dinner before setting the table and calling everyone down.  It was a moral victory because I could get this all done with only one or maybe two children hanging around and the rest would blessedly find somewhere other than the kitchen to make messes amuse themselves.

Now I am turning into a general, issuing orders as we come in from our afternoon walk.  "Kathleen, you bathe with Joseph.  Make sure to put his clothes and towel up when he's done.  Don't forget to dress him!  Sophia, you've got Edwin and Eleanor today.  Edwin can take care of his own things.  After Eleanor is dressed, come down for her bottle.  After she's done, put her to bed.  Don't forget to clean up the dirty clothes!  I'm going to make dinner.  After everyone's done with baths, clean up the toy room.  It has to be done before you eat!  Okay, everyone, go!"  Then they all scatter.

This sounds very good in theory.  I assign tasks out to children, the children complete the tasks cheerfuly, and we all meet together for a delightful evening meal with clean faces, clean pajamas, and a clean toy room.

And this will probably work out as planned in a few years, but not yet.  Because I'm assigning the lead tasks to an eight year-old and a six year-old, who sometimes get distracted or angry with their siblings or can't find the soap or can't keep the five year-old from beating up on the three-year old.  And then some of the orders get forgotten and wet towels line the path from bathroom to bedroom and dirty diapers hide in dark corners of the hallway and forgotten underwear is covered in soap suds from the bath water that inevitably gets splashed despite the daily stern warnings about no splashing.
So dinner, which should be a solitary ritual in a sunny afternoon kitchen, becomes the second day's workout as I dash up and down and up and down and up and down the stairs to put out the latest fire that absolutely needs my help.  I always start with shouting up the stairwell, but it never ends there.  And so dinner, which has been timed to start with just enough time to get it done by six, is never done by six because it always has at least sixteen interruptions that weren't listed in the cooking time on the recipe.  Prep time: 15 minutes.  Cooking time: 40 minutes.  Breaking up fights: 10 minutes.  Finding lost items: 5 minutes.  Making children pick up dirty clothes and towels: 7 minutes.  Making the baby's bottle: 5 minutes.  Staring out the window aimlessly: 2 minutes.

When I was in college I skied.  I'd only going skiing once before I got ski equipment my freshman year in college.  I was reckless and loved going fast and loved to look brave, so I took on challenging slopes that I had no business tackling as a beginner skier.  I still remember hurtling down a too-steep slope at top speed because I didn't have enough skill to carve and slow myself down.  I had enough control to keep my skis pointed downhill and could keep it together as long as I didn't run into a tiny patch of ice or rough spot.  The icy wind would rush past, whipping my braids straight out behind me and I would clench my teeth as the skis chattered back and forth beneath me.  Each run would end in a sigh of relief and dread for the next fast hill.  I was happy to give it up when I married Brandon.

My life some days feels like those runs, barely in control and going much too fast for any sensible control.  I should slow down, take some more time to get things done, but I'm in the middle and it's too late and so we just have to hold on until bedtime and rest before the whole show starts over again.  All days are not the slow-motion train wreck, of course.  Some days we hit the timing just right with enough to get everything down and everyone taken care of and everyone still speaking to each other by the end of the day.  Sometimes there's even a story.  But other days is just one non-stop ride from beginning to end and we're lucky to make it to bedtime with everyone alive.

I've never regretted my decision to have five children or to have them so close together.  Already some things are starting to pay off - I'll never trade watching all of the older children crowd around Eleanor's crib for her goodnight kiss for all of the clean houses in the world.  I have no doubt that I'll remember that in twenty years after all of the dirty towels, dirty diapers, and dirty rooms have faded into insignificant details from a particularly busy part of my life.  I will forget teetering on the edge of control and only remember the days filled with my babies and their cheerful smiles and sunny natures.  That is the magic of memories - you can redact your own life and and only keep the best parts.

And so for now, I hold on and remember that all of life is only temporary - both the bad and the good parts.

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