In the morning, when the light glows blue, the Beast behind my breastbone is quiet. She is tired, I suppose, from her busy night railing against my ribs. Before my legs find the floor, I can expand my chest for the first time in hours as she rests peacefully, more kitten than lion. I wouldn’t believe it was the same creature if I hadn’t felt the thrashed sheets, the wet pillowcase, the ache in my jaw from the clenching. Evidence of her nightly romp.
At the door, I am greeted by two wide-eyed children, still a mess of hair and sleep and wrinkled pajamas. They remind me of open-mouthed baby birds. I smush each of their chubby cheeks between my lips, rumple the big boy’s hair.
“Where’s our breakfast?”
“Ready in a minute,” I smile. There’s so much to do already. I have choreographed the morning dance into a waltz of multitasking—pour the protein cereal, set the dog’s bowl down, start the coffee, turn to empty the dishwasher, animal breath in my chest a reminder that the Beast will sleep if I stay ahead.
I snap at the kids when they ask for something because their neediness may wake her, scramble to the closet while they eat and bicker, and choose clothes for school.
My son comes galloping into the bathroom, nearly tackling me in his attempt to reach the hairbrush on the counter at my waist. He is a pinball, and this morning he feels freshly launched. “Let me help you, please,” I request because his 6-year-old fingers aren’t yet deft enough to tame his hair into place.
“No!” he jerks it away. Defiant. “I hate when you wet it and get water in my ears. My friends will laugh at me if you comb it to the side.”
The Beast lifts her head at that comment, a scent on the breeze. Could it be?
“You missed a spot,” I sigh, and hurry out the door.
Once the kids are at school, her grip on my heart relaxes the way a hand might hold a bird, never letting go exactly but not wringing the life away. I become my best self between the hours of 9 and 3, lacing my running shoes and using my rhythmic steps to rock the Beast to sleep. This is predictable, efficient, and necessary, my go-to card to play that can be trumped only by an unexpected phone call from my son’s school. It rings like a siren in my pocket and prods the Beast into a fury before I answer an innocent automated message from the PTA. My feet become heavier after that, though for the remainder of the miles, I convince myself to pound them to the cadence, “It’s-no-thing, it’s-no-thing.”
Despite my mantra, she is restless for the rest of the afternoon.
The scent of chaos and overstimulation are ripe in the carpool line, sending the Beast into a frenzy.
“Did you have a good day, buddy?” I ask and scan his face for the things he doesn’t say. The Beast insists she sees a wince, but I ignore her and focus on the way his left dimple disappears with his biggest smile and wonder which of us is right.
It takes about 30 minutes after school for the kids’ energy levels to return from the stratosphere. I let them unwind with a snack and TV show (are they getting too much screen time?) while I remain busy to stay ahead. Laundry, dinner plans, floors to mop—these become the walls I pace, snarling. I call my son, “Turn the TV off! Homework!”
He roars back, no dimples to be found. He flops onto a kitchen stool.
“I hate homework,” he declares, shuffling through his folder. I silently agree to the interior of the fridge but force a smile when I close the door.
“I’ll help you,” I offer.
I try to be patient and calm, model thoughtful sentences while the pot boils over and the dryer buzzes and his sister needs a Band-Aid, but I feel like a lion tamer with pockets full of steaks.
I watch him crumple six pieces of paper before he’s satisfied with the shape of one uppercase I. I reach for my last trick and flood the Beast with red wine.
After dinner, she slows to wallow in her alcohol haze while I read bedtime stories and rub sleepy brows. I am just as comforted by their routines as they are, the prayers and kisses predictable to the minute, their fleeting childhood more evident and precious beneath Lightning McQueen sheets. I know that later, I will scan our day for the ways I failed them, but for now, I sing lullabies.
I am minutes from an exit when my son interrupts my song. “Mom?” The Beast sniffs the air. “My chest feels funny.” She raises her ears at the scent of her kind. “Like I could cry, but don’t want to.” She snarls at the delicious discovery and tears at my heart.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I mean I just feel like crying sometimes but I’m not sure why.”
“Are you nervous? Sad? Worried? Angry?” I am one fingertip reaching for something, anything.
“I’m not sure,” he says.
“Deep breaths,” I say to him and to me. “Try to sleep. In the morning, you’ll feel better.” I kiss him and close the door.
I am devoured.
I spend the night feeding the Beast a million morsels of what-ifs and how-comes and unanswerable whys, her favorite—was it all my fault? A particular feast. I wonder if my son’s beast looks different than mine, and I imagine him tumbling through the house like a wrecking ball. Does he run because he runs from it? Is he defiant because he needs control?
In the morning, when the light glows blue and the Beast is exhausted, I go to him. I see his sheets, neatly cornered, his lashes dry and splayed across his cheeks. This is no war zone. There was no stalking here last night. I kiss his deepest left dimple. “Good morning, Sunshine!” I sing. “How’d you sleep?”
“Like a kitten,” he smiles. I inhale, expand my chest, and curl up beside the sleeping creature deep inside. For at least another morning, she is quiet.
Previously published on Mothers Always Write