Any fool can do it; there ain’t nothing to it.
Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill.
But since we’re on our way down,
We might as well enjoy the ride.
Sliding down, gliding down, try not to try too hard.
It’s just a lovely ride.
James Taylor—The Secret ‘O Life
I don’t always recognize I’m headed for collapse until, speeding down the freeway at 100 mph, dashboard warnings flashing, I veer off the road to make an emergency stop. I’ve gotten so good at disregarding my maintenance lights, by the time I realize I’m in trouble, I’m already sputtering and careening; out of gas, overheated, or worse, out of control, crashing and taking out everyone around me.
When we moved from Missouri back to Austin, Texas in 2003, circumstances combined to create a fusion of indescribable stress that will go down in Kent family history as The-Time-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. Every member of our family was a hot mess; Haley, 5 weeks old, a textbook example of a colicky infant, emitted a type of banshee wailing that could literally wake the dead, and was silenced only when nursing (constantly) or sleeping (rarely). Sydney, 4 years old, with modulating sensory integration issues, experienced overstimulation, auditorily and otherwise. She was confused and jealous. Her ‘elopement’ was at an all-time high and, thanks to a very ambitious preschool teacher, potty training had begun in earnest (it took two years to fully train our sweetie and it wasn’t the potty that was so much the problem). Let that image crystallize for a moment: Clingy, wailing infant on the boob and pooping-in-her-britches toddler on the run.
To the teenagers: Jeremy, a 16-year-old junior, active and popular at his high school of 200, was forced to leave for a new school boasting a student body of 2,000. Miserable, moody and sullen, his angst was amplified when he suffered a spiral, comminuted fracture of the tibia while roller-blading, resulting in major surgery. He had no friends; he couldn’t drive; he had to hobble around the massive campus on crutches; and he was failing Spanish. Melissa, newly graduated from high school, 18 years old—technically an adult—didn’t know what she wanted. A little rebellious and more than a little irresponsible, she mostly wanted her freedom and found that working as a food server at a restaurant gave her the cash to play and the friends to play with. She started staying out late, didn’t call and soon, didn’t come home at all. The occasional times she was home, she was asleep. Steven returned to managing 80 employees in the high-pressure environment of a growing corporation, sitting in congested traffic for hours, and working long days under insurmountable stress that drained him completely and left him no time for leisure and no patience for domestic turbulence. Add Booker, the dog. Barking incessantly whether indoors or out; he needed exercise, he needed training, he needed attention. The timing of adopting a new Boxer puppy was questionable, but the kids had begged and promised—swore—that they would feed, clean up after, play with, sleep with and train said dog. That happened. Not.
My crisis came in trying to hold it . . . them . . . all of us, together. The constant frenetic pace of moment to moment functioning threatened to unravel my sanity. Multi-tasking took on a whole new meaning, though I’ve read there is really no such thing; we actually shift our rapid-fire attention between tasks and this may have been the beginning of my short-circuiting memory. Unremitting distractions and interruptions blitzed my brain-power. I’d remember a doctor’s appointment after it was over. I’d forget mid-sentence what I was talking about. And once I put a whole tank of E-85 gasoline in my unleaded-only mini-van. That was a $400 ‘Oops!’ I lamented over how I used to be a smart person; I’d graduated summa cum laude, after all. But, as I dashed from one spinning plate to the next, my memory dumped its contents to focus on the demand directly in front of me. Plates often dropped and broke—sometimes even shattered—along with my ability to cope. My days were a blur: the dog barking, the baby crying, Sydney pooping, Jeremy crying, Melissa leaving, the dog pooping, Jeremy yelling, Sydney leaving, Steven yelling, Melissa sleeping, Steven leaving, and Haley eating, pooping, not sleeping then crying some more. I was unhappy all of the time, panicked most of the time, and angry a lot of the time. Simply put, I was desperate.
How did I manage? Exercise? Meditation? Getting ORGANIZED?! Oh, no. I yelled. I cried. I longed to sleep. I thought about leaving (and did once, walking down the street in my pjs, for about 2 minutes). And I ate. I ate whole rows of OREO® cookies at a single sitting. I ate Keebler® Fudge Stripes™. I ate a dozen Round Rock donuts (Google them). I also drank. Wine may have been my best friend of all. I’m not proud of it, but sugar became my solace and I gained 50 lbs.
Sometime before I walked out the door and kept walking, I went to a retreat in a beautiful spa setting. Steven encouraged me to go, taking time away from his busy schedule to hold down the fort so I could go off into the woods and find myself. The workshop, “The Joy Diet: 10 Daily Practices for a Happier Life,” was led by the author of a book by the same name, a woman I admired and wanted to meet, Life Coach Martha Beck (Google her, too. She is also the author of “Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth and Everyday Magic;” a memoir about her son with Down syndrome). If anyone needed joy, it was me (and let’s be honest, a diet couldn’t hurt, either).
Sitting in a circle, listening to stories of personal transformation through creative, risk-taking, connected truth-telling, I thought, “Criminy, I’m just trying to get us all to the end of the day alive. I’m lucky if I get my teeth brushed.” I found the courage to speak up and asked, “How? Seriously, please tell me how I can find joy in my long and grueling days. I’m in this for the duration and I just can’t see past it.” I will never forget how she looked at me, with such genuine compassion, and said, “Honey, you’re in boot camp. Raising children is like being in perpetual boot camp. You will get through it.” No answer, really, because there wasn’t one. But I felt validated and I stopped thinking I must be doing something wrong; I stopped feeling that I was on the verge of epic failure. Travelling this long road of responsibility, I decided I would get through it by giving myself a break. Instead of a breakdown, I had a break-through: I got help. It’s that simple.
Respite: a beautiful word, defined as a delay or cessation for a time, especially of anything distressing or trying; an interval of relief. What a concept! I had been expecting myself to charge ahead, going the distance with no rest stops, no maintenance, no repairs or re-fueling, feeling guilty for having needs at all. As a mother I was to be a paragon of nurturing, selfless virtue with unlimited patience; long-suffering, always putting others first. I began to challenge the voices of my conditioning and listen instead to my own which said, “You will be a better mother if you take care of yourself.”
Eventually Haley stopped crying and Sydney went on the toilet; Jeremy returned to Missouri to finish high school and Melissa went to college. The dog went to live in wide-open spaces with other doggy friends. Steven quit his job and came back to us. And I not only lost weight but became a fitness instructor. We moved back to Missouri—Columbia this time, so we could be near my husband’s parents and so the girls could have a close relationship with them, which they do. Haley says, “PaPa, your kisses taste like beer. MeMe’s kisses taste like love.”
Thanks to them we’ve been able to take trips—even leave the country—confident that our little ones are safe and well cared for. And, as established, these two are not easy to care for. We can’t leave Sydney with just anyone; few babysitters, let alone family members, can handle her particular challenges. Add the high volume, high-octane energy that is Haley, and you’ve got a combustible mix that has scared away many a potential nanny. Just the other night a brand new babysitter, fresh and as yet unaware of the dangers, headed to our house. The girls watched out the front window, on their elbows, leaning their bellies over the back of an overstuffed chair, for a good 15 minutes. Steven, walking by, saw them and commented, “It’s like the lions waiting for an injured gazelle.”
I think grandparents must be God’s gift to frazzled, overwrought and exhausted parents. My set even provides door-to-door pick-up and delivery. I buckle the girls into the back seat of their car, wave goodbye and watch them drive off. As I turn to go into my quiet house, my clean house, my kid-free house, an incredible feeling of relief and lightness comes over me. The weekend yawns before me. Ahhh, time. Time to remember who I am. To sit in the sun; to drive with the top down and feel the wind in my hair; to listen to music; to read a book; to enjoy a glass of wine and have a conversation with my husband; to meet a friend for coffee. I reflect on The-Time-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named and I pulse with reminiscence, aching for the mother I was trying to be, rejoicing for the mother who got through it.
Now, when I’m tired, I rest. When I’m hungry, I eat. When I’m discouraged, I reach for support. When I’ve lost my smile, I stop taking life so seriously and go have some fun. I try to schedule regular tune-ups rather than waiting until my brakes fail, my battery dies, or my oil turns to sludge and clogs my engine. It doesn’t take much to keep me humming along smoothly, I just need to pay attention, to slow down and enjoy the ride.
I still have ‘crappy mommy moments,’ as my friend, Jane calls them—times when I’m not a perfect mother, but I can forgive myself. Several years ago when Haley was 5, we went head-to-head and she screamed, “I hate you!” (I know, right? Just wait ‘til she’s 16). That night, as she was lying in bed, barely able to keep her eyes open, she said in a sleepy voice, “Mommy, I love you. I love you after I hate you. I love you forever because I’ll hate you again, but I’ll always love you.” Yep. That pretty much sums it up.
I hear a car pull into the driveway. The door slams and I know the kids are back. I’m rested. I’m ready. I open the door and they coming running at me with arms wide. “Mom-eeeeeeeee!,” they exclaim, wrapping me in the sweetest of hugs. Seeing them after just a few days brings a clearer perspective. This is still what I want; this is the life I love.
Meanwhile, the grandparents are making their getaway. As PaPa unloads the luggage, MeMe tells us about the adventures of the weekend. They stand in the entryway, one hand on the doorknob. I love my in-laws and everything about them. Midwestern to the core, they are deeply caring, generous and optimistic people and they will never admit that the kids have flat worn them out. But I know. I know how taxing my children are. I gather my gratitude and wrap them in it, wondering if they can possibly know what they’ve done for me. “Thank you, so much, Mom and Dad!” I call after them, as they sprint to their car.