My Facebook game is strong. I have a cover photo boasting a towering mountain range from our last trip out west. There’s a profile pic with three happy children and a smiling husband.
If you scroll through the years’ worth of images, there is no shortage of family vacations, romantic-ish trips with my husband, and a fair share of girls’ weekends featuring friends and laughter and cocktails.
I try my best to share the catastrophes, too. Weeks with sick kids and a traveling spouse, unfortunate vomit incidents and a gamut of stories involving human feces in unintended places. These glimpses into my life are not infrequent, but they are easily forgotten when a series of vacation photos come rolling through again. A pina colada and a tropical island erase the memory of a corn-filled diaper pretty quickly – which is why I cling to these trips in the first place.
Our situation is unique in our ability to live out these travel dreams given my husband’s occupation, one that takes him all over the country building those airline miles. Sometimes the sound of his hotel points racking up helps calm my resentment when I’m home with three feverish babies and he’s slurping down a steak somewhere in Texas. Sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, we are fortunate, and I do not take this lightly. As the school year opens up and we start spending more time close to home, I am reminded of why I pack us up and go so often. There’s so much work to do here. It’s overwhelming.
You’d think we lived on a 1,000 acre cattle ranch with the size of my to-do list. We don’t. It’s just a house with a decent-sized yard littered with various species of dead plants that somebody forgot to water. There’s a little sandbox that our cats have turned into a toilet as well as raised garden beds that were supposed to produce a bounty of zucchini but instead serve as their second depository. Our cavernous garage looks like an estate sale, and every time I get out of my car, I tell myself there are bigger fish to fry and look away as the anger creeps into my face. Can he not at least take care of the garage?
Our loft has become an IKEA storehouse with two dressers and a bookshelf lying in boxes waiting for assembly. Two lone drawers sit there, fastened together, the remains of my husband’s grand attempt when I was away on one of those lengthy girls’ weekends. They’ll be there until Christmas or the next time our parents come visit. We aren’t tackling these projects solo with three kids who would love nothing more than to lodge a screwdriver into the wall or each other.
When I head to the basement, I find toys covering the floor, a storage room I can no longer set foot in without hyperventilating, and a mysterious brown liquid flowing from one of the outlets for the central vac. It looks like crystalized poop, but it smells of root beer so I think we’re okay. It’s been six years since we bought the house, and we still haven’t purchased attachments for the system. It seems like a lot of work. They don’t sell those at Target.
I go back upstairs to change over the fifth load of laundry and finally put away the clothes that have been waiting on the couch for the past three days. As I try to shimmy open one of the dresser drawers (a poorly painted chest that housed my own tiny clothes once upon a time) I think about those IKEA boxes sitting in the loft and get all sweaty again. There’s too much to do. I’d rather run away. When is spring break?
When I call my husband after the kids have finally whined themselves to sleep, I can tell he’s out and about. “You’re not going to like this, but I’m sitting down to a giant shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo’s. I gotta go.” Well, then. I tell him good-bye and secretly hope the shrimp has gone off and puts him on the toilet all night.
I need to finish the dishes and pay the bills stacking up on the kitchen counter’s peeling laminate, but I’m so tired. I just want to crawl in with the boys and scroll through TripAdvisor to find the next big thing, the next great place to take me away from here, from the work of raising kids and maintaining a house. But the next great place is months away, so I flip back through the pics of summer. Yellowstone, the Tetons, Belize. Days that glitter and shine. Days that make the highlight reel.
I keep swiping backwards to those golden moments, photos of the kids when they were babies, newborns clutched to my chest, my eyes shut in silent gratitude for their safe entry into my arms. My face looks peaceful in a way that it seldom does in my day-to-day grind. There’s exhaustion there but calm as well, and as I move through these pictures, I remember that feeling of immense relief that came as each one of those boys was handed to me.
The hours of labor were not pretty. They were not shiny. They were painful and monotonous, overwhelming at times. But that euphoric moment of peace – when the fruits of my labor were received into my arms, trembling still from grasping the sides of the hospital bed at the onset of each new rush of pain and strength – that moment of peace was golden. And the hours and days and months of work that it took to get that one wave of something pure became unspeakably profound. I treasure those sleepless nights with the weight of my growing belly sinking deep into the mattress. I miss the heaviness I felt bearing those children.
The continual rounds of washing and bathing and scrubbing, the battles between brothers and husbands and wives, the tedious nature of keeping a house in order, of keeping lives in order, none of these tasks that soak up so many hours of our existence make the highlight reel. But they are still there, and while the chores and daily headaches don’t glitter or do much to impress the Jones’, they are a privilege. We have people who need us. To do their laundry. To make their breakfast. To wipe their bottoms and brush their teeth. To go off to work and eat our jumbo shrimp and travel through the night after little sleep and long, lonely hours to get back home to them.
As we dive deeper and deeper into this parenting thing, I’m finding the moments that sparkle the brightest are rarely the most important. They are wonderful, of course, and as I settle into our fall routine of school drop offs and pick-ups, filling and emptying lunch boxes, hauling children back and forth to practice, trying to keep up with the mental load of remembering all the things for all the people I am responsible for – I must admit, I’m looking forward to our next vacation already. Those glittery moments can’t come soon enough…but glitter is light and fleeting. It gets blown away, loses its sparkle, and then we need more. Thank goodness, it’s not hard to find. Everybody can get their hands on some glitter.
At the end of an exhausting, thankless day, though, I don’t go looking for glitter. I need gold. Gold is different. It’s rare and pure. It takes work to hunt it down, to chip away the rock and dirt and recognize the value you hold in your hands – that sleeping child nuzzled against your chest, that weary spouse who’s traveled hours on end to make it home. Gold has weight, and its heaviness keeps us grounded when the shine of temporary things catches our gaze as it so easily does.
When we are out on the road, exploring and recording all that sparkles, my favorite moments don’t make the highlight reel. They look like any other day and come right before sleep, when the lights are out and the weight and warmth of our family is all in one place. It could be any place really, when the curtains are drawn and all that’s left to see are the silhouettes of those faces I know better than my own. After long days of selfie-worthy sights freely shared with everyone, I welcome the gentle quiet that no one sees except me. Some things don’t translate to film or the shiny identities we’ve built for ourselves out in cyberspace. They are hidden beneath layers of laundry and tears and work and pain, and they are easily missed if you don’t know what you are looking for.