It’s 7:39 am, which is not that early in the grand scheme of things. In some interesting twist of the clock, my older children chose to sleep in just a little later than usual.
The baby was up at 4 o’clock for her morning feed, but she is the easiest kid on my radar these days. Eat, poop, coo, snuggle, sleep and start the cycle over. This third iteration of motherhood means that I have babies down to something of a loose science, an expected rhythm.
It’s her four-and-a-half-year-old sister, struggling with jealousy and growing pains, and her two-and-a-half-year-old brother, learning to use the potty on his own, who leave me and my husband spent. The unpredictable extra bit of sleep they need in the morning is generally welcome; one less minute in which our minds are engaged in anticipating the next fire that may need to be put out.
But of course today, as Murphy’s Law would have it, we actually have some plans which will require our eyes to fixate on the clock a little more than usual. Early rising may actually have been helpful so as to avoid the ticking time bomb known as rushing your kids out the door.
Once they’re up, I hurriedly pour Cheerios in cheerfully colored plastic bowls and run back to the refrigerator for the milk which I pour carefully so as to not nudge Cheerios out of the bowl. My older two sit down to eat just as the baby gets fussy for second breakfast. I scoop her out of her bouncy seat and head to the couch in the living room to cuddle and nurse her while I have the time, out of eyesight of the older two. I’m thankful for an excuse to sit down.
“Mama, I made a spill,” I hear my daughter say calmly about a minute later.
“Ok, just a minute,” I respond. I can’t see it, but it’s probably just a spoonful that fell onto the table or the floor. I’d have her clean it up but I don’t have the time this morning to wait patiently through her cleaning process.
The baby seems satisfied enough so I slip her off my breast and head to take a look at the damage. As I turn the corner, I have to search for the spill: it’s not on the table, nor on the floor. No, this time, the bowl and nearly all its contents somehow found their way onto the fabric-covered chair. Of course they did, I think to myself.
My daughter is just standing next to the chair, almost as if nothing has happened.
“Zoe!” I grumble out loud as I grab the dish rag. “This is a big spill! Why –” I trail off. I want to ask her why she didn’t say something, but of course she did say something. I want to ask why the tone of her voice wasn’t laced with more urgency when she announced the spill to me. In my mind in this moment, the spill of an entire bowl of cereal onto a fabric chair on a morning where we have to rush out the door is something of an urgent situation. I want to ask all of these “why” questions in a tone that is unkind.
But I am stopped as I stare at the Cheerios on the chair.
It has started out as this kind of day, but it doesn’t have to be this kind of day, I think to myself.
I have to fight the parts of me that want to make a bowlful of Cheerios spilled onto a chair a much bigger deal than they are.
We are deep in the throes of potty training my two-year-old son. Without shame we have chosen to use candy to bribe him for each successful trip to the bathroom. We learned the first time around with my older daughter that sugar is an incredibly useful tool to be used to parental advantage.
Both of my older children are staring upward as I open the treat cupboard, the one that is intentionally well out of their reach, to grab an M&M or two after one such successful run. Suddenly, my hand slips and I bump the bag, sending the remainder of the candies crashing to the floor. Dinnertime is near, but the mantra from earlier in the day comes back to me:
It started out as this kind of day, but it doesn’t have to be this kind of day.
The M&Ms had fallen from such a height that it reminded me of raindrops, so I start singing the first song that comes to mind:
“It’s raining M&Ms, hallelujah, it’s raining M&Ms, hallelujah…” I belt out, recreating The Weather Girls’ 1983 classic It’s Raining Men.
My kids’ mouths hang open for half a second before starting to laugh, almost as if waiting for permission. They aren’t used to a kitchen spill producing a reaction like this from their harried mom. No, no; this is a much more delightful reaction than the one that can involve grumbling, grimacing and setting my jaw against saying the words that are chomping at the bit to spill forth from my mouth.
As I continue to sing and scoop up M&Ms from the tile floor, they join in, giggling and singing. Granted, a spill of M&Ms is quite a bit more delightful than a soggy cereal spill, but I want to freeze this moment in my mind. We just experienced an interruption, a mess that will need to be cleaned up, and yet we are smiling, dancing and giggling.
It started out as this kind of spill, but it doesn’t have to be this kind of spill.
Weeks later, I am rocking my oldest to sleep. She has started her second week of school, and after a day without naps, she has asked me to do this. These are my favorite kinds of bedtime snuggles – when they are too tired to really fight sleep with much vigor, and lie exhaustedly still as I rock. I sing and run my fingers through her hair as her eyelids surrender slowly to the end of the day. I reach deep into the memory vault and picture her pulling herself to standing as a baby; running from room to room giggling as a two-year-old; singing from the top of her lungs while sitting on the potty at three. I pull her up to cradle her as I used to. How is it that she is now almost five? How is it that we are now here? My mind breaks into achy prayers as the sudden rush of guilt and fear fills me: I am messing this all up. Somehow, all these memories of the smaller version of her make me feel the weight of motherhood even more. I could have been more kind, more patient, more inviting, more encouraging, more playful, more, more, more. I can’t live up to my own standard of what it looks like to be the best mom for her. The more I fret over it, the worse it seems to get.
It started out as this kind of memory, but it doesn’t have to be this kind of memory.
It would be easy to dwell here, in the muck of failure and fear, to let my experience of motherhood be defined by what I haven’t done or wish I had done differently. But that’s a pretty awful place to build memories. So as I ask God to protect her from my failures, I also lay this moment at his feet. It doesn’t have to be this kind of moment; I don’t want it to be this kind of moment.
“I’m messing it up, Daddy…fix it.”
The fear of failure gives way to delight as I’m reminded of the girl who gives “rainbow kisses” (one kiss on the left cheek, forehead and right cheek to form the arc).
This same girl cannot resist breaking into song even in the middle of Trader Joe’s (seriously – 20 whole minutes of near constant song during our last trip there).
She has a strong desire to lead which, when used well, is amazing to watch.
She gives her brother the owl sticker she got at school as soon as she walks out the classroom door…she’s been thinking of him.
She stood up for a classmate who was told he was ugly – she said “No he’s not! Don’t say that!”
Somehow, what started out as darkness becomes light, what started out as burden becomes delight, ashes are exchanged for beauty, and I am invited to rest in the witnessing of failures turned upside down.
It only started out as failure. It never has to finish that way.
*This post was originally published on the author’s blog.