Saturday, 29 July 2017

Realistic parenting

Both children are napping at the same time right now. It may only last for 5 minutes, but I relish these scraps of quiet and calm in a way that frightens me a bit. I did consciously choose to have children, and I was even around kids a lot growing up, as the oldest of 5 - but the reality of my ability to parent and my kids’ temperaments is mildly (wildly?) different from what I anticipated. 

Indulge me while I contrast a few scenarios as they played out in my mind’s eye prior to having kids, and then how they actually occur.

Grocery shopping
Jessica’s brain: The little one sits in the seat part of the cart and plays with a wooden, hard-carved rattle lovingly shined with non-toxic fair-trade almond oil. The older one skips happily down the aisles, helpfully selecting healthy and affordable choices with non-wasteful packaging that he places carefully into the cart.

Reality: The little one sits in the cart seat and gnaws on my keys, or a horrible brightly-colored plastic toy, ingesting heavy metals or endocrine disruptors and thus killing braincells or destroying her future reproductive abilities. But at least she isn’t screaming and pulling my hair, so I make a vague attempt to swap a healthier toy into her hand and then give up. How can babies be so strong?
The older one has wedged himself underneath the cart and is busy intermittently dragging his limbs along the ground, causing the cart to swerve unsuspectingly into displays or other carts. Now and then, the entire 4-year old tumbles himself out, halting progress of the cart so that he can grab something off the shelf that will either 
  1. explode upon impact once tossed in the cart, showering fellow shoppers with blueberries, 
  2. has zero nutritional value, 
  3. is very expensive (a $4 bag of walnuts that contains approximately 5 nuts, for instance) and/or 
  4. has approximately 6 layers of plastic encasing a tiny slice of edible material. 
Considering that the older one is somewhat underweight and very picky about food, many of these irritating choices make it home with us in hopes that he will put some meat on his bones.
Hey, kids! I have an awesome idea! Let's walk out into this meadow to enjoy the natural world. Nevermind the fact that 90% of the ground in said meadow is a bog that you will sink into, turning your shoes smelly and wet and brown.
A visit to the beach
Jessica’s brain: Ooh! The weather is lovely! We’ll just pop down to the beach to enjoy some healthy outdoor bonding time as a family. We’ll make a sandcastle and go for a swim and come home relaxed and sun-kissed.

Reality: I throw some relevant beach-articles into a bag with one hand, while the other tries to simultaneously hold a heavy, wiggling baby who cries if I put her down and prevent her from pulling out my hair strand by strand. Meanwhile, the 4-yr old is staging a protest against going outside by lying on the ground where I am trying to walk, and wailing loudly. 
I manage to get the kids, a towel, and possibly some swimwear and/or sunscreen into the car, drive a mile to the beach, and find parking while the kids continue to yell about how they just wanted to sit around and whine about watching TV instead of doing anything fun. I unload them and manage to get them down the 5 flights of stairs to the sand via an exhausting process of coercion mixed with carrying 45 lbs of kids in spurts. I spread out the towel, which I notice is much too small to do much. 
The sun is really blinding and I’ve forgotten an umbrella. I open the bag of junk and pull out two rashguards for the 4-yr old and a bikini bottom for myself. I seem to be missing a bikini top, bottoms for the older child, and anything useful for the baby. I convince the older child that underpants and a rashguard are a fine beach-going outfit, and that he should let his sister wear his spare rashie for sun protection. I slather the rest of their exposed surfaces with sunscreen, feeling quite proud that I managed to bring this key item. 
After we are all set to enjoy our lovely time at the beach, the 4-yr old proclaims that he is hungry. I pull out an array of random unhealthy snacks filled with sand that I left in the bag from last time we were at the beach. Though they were acceptable last time, today they are no good and he wants something else, kicking off a long discussion about the fact that I can’t produce new food from nothing. Sometimes we invent an imaginary snack-producing machine, which distracts him long enough to forget that he hates the available food. Then he invariably asks for sand toys, which I’ve forgotten. I manage to find a half-broken plastic spoon in the bag, and scrounge up some sticks from the beach, but these aren’t really up to par.
I look longingly at the put-together mom lounging on a comfortable chair down the beach, while her properly-dressed children play happily in the sand with their buckets and shovels under a proper shade structure. The next time we go to the beach, I bring an entire wagon filled to bursting with towels, chairs, shovels, umbrella, snacks, water, actual swimwear, and the like. The instant we’ve set up our little home on the beach, the 4-yr old needs to poo. Sigh.
Dressed reasonably for the beach, and eating actual semi-healthy food? Whoever is behind the camera must be a quivering pile of sweat after all of that effort. 
Bonding with my children during sweet, yet flexible evening routines
Jessica’s brain: Well, I don’t want to be tied down to a rigid bedtime routine, because then we won’t be able to just continue living our lives exactly as normal (with the minor addition of two additional opinionated people for whom are responsible). Furthermore, if I do develop any sort of flexible bedtime regime that I may or may not deploy depending on whether it’s convenient for me and my social life, I definitely will make sure it is bursting with love and affection. We will cuddle and laugh, have pleasant baths, don PJs and brush teeth while giggling, snuggle into bed to quietly read books or sing songs, and then obediently lay down with closed eyes to happily drift into sleep.

Reality: Throwing routines to the wind results in horrendously cranky children who completely refuse to sleep and/or do anything other than wilt onto the floor and cry over seemingly nothing. It becomes increasingly difficult to enjoy going out for dinner or to the beach or to a friend’s house to barbecue unless done at an atrociously early time. Our kids turn out to be practically incapable of sleeping in and making up for a late night; instead they turn into wild beasts the following day, draining all of our will to live. 
Even if we opt to stay home and try to keep things early and easy, bedtime is never a walk in the park as I had imagined. Though we do it every. freaking. night, brushing teeth is a battle every time. I can’t even imagine bathing the kids daily; even getting them to allow me to wash their hair twice a week requires patience, fortitude, and a bit of conniving. Often, I can’t even convince the older one to change into PJs, and instead he sleeps in his school clothes, adding to the collection of playground sand in his bed as it spills from his pockets and socks. 
Reading books to the two of them is a challenge. Of course the small one likes very simple picture books; the older one doesn’t mind them particularly except when she requests to read the book about babies eating again. And again. And again. Likewise, the younger one can’t follow along with Harry Potter, so she yells and pulls on our clothing and thrusts picture books into our faces to distract me from continuing it. Even if we wait until the toddler is asleep first to read a chapter book, the older one has trouble sitting still to listen when there are no pictures, so he keeps getting up and building towers out of other books or rummaging around his collection for interesting rocks. I find this incredibly distracting and assume he isn’t listening, so complain to him and ask that he come back and snuggle up to read, so I can have a fleeting few seconds of my vision come to life.

Carving out time to do grown-up stuff
Jessica’s brain: It’s so important not to let life get completely consumed by children. I’m my own person! My health and feelings and relationships matter! The husband and I will most definitely set aside time for regular date nights, and I will regularly exercise and see friends and maintain hobbies like writing my blog.

Reality: I can count on one hand the number of date nights I’ve been on since having kids, and maybe on two hands the number of girls-outings I’ve attended without them in tow. Exercise mainly consists of chasing and carrying small people, which is exhausting but hasn’t exactly resulted in flat abs and bulging biceps. Hobbies are practically a distant memory. Case in point: I started this blog post approximately 11 months ago during a nap, and am just now getting back to it. I also have two partially-finished knitting projects that I started while each of my little ones were incubating in my belly, and neither are even close to being finished. Perhaps they will end up as gifts for my grandchildren. 
Instead, I generally find myself either working, commuting, hanging out with the kids, or cleaning the house and preparing lunches and clothing for the next day before I pass out and do it all over again. 
But I can’t complain - I love that I get to do all of these things, and I assume that one day the kids won’t want to hang out with me after school and I will feel weird an unsure what to do with my free time. Hopefully I can still dust off my old friendships and hobbies and resume these important parts of life. Hopefully they don’t atrophy and die from neglect before that time comes. (Hint, hint: I still love all y’all). In the meantime, I'll just continue to stumble through and thank my lucky stars I have the luxury of worrying about these silly things, rather than how we will pay the rent or buy food or go to the doctor. If the rest of my life consists of the same substance as now, I will die happy.

The little one usually wins when they both want the same thing. If the older one has a shark/crocodile complex as an adult, you'll know why.