Last week I prayed for calm. I prayed to be a loving mother as I glared at my small children, their blinking blue eyes looking back at me, curious boys wondering where their nice Mommy had gone. Who was this shell of a Mommy sitting before them, threatening to crack right there on the living room floor?
With the fall of the last leaf from the tree, November was in full swing. No big trips on the horizon. No warm sun to beckon us outside. Cabin fever had descended, and it seemed the fragile shell was unpacking her bags and setting up shop – so I did what I always do and planned a weekend away.
Then I prayed, and I asked other people to pray, sending out my meager plea in a Wednesday morning women’s group. The sheet comes around every week and people jot down whatever ails them or their loved ones. A sick family member. A grieving friend. Guidance at a crossroads. Any number of life’s pains fill the page in hopes that the collective can cure the hurt.
Most weeks, I scribble my request, glance through the others, knowing that I will fail to hold up my end of the bargain once again. I will forget who needs what, placing my own worries above all else, everyone else, and race through what I want before drifting off to sleep. There’s only so much time to whisper into the universe; I tend to save it for myself. I penned my request, ignored the guilt, and headed out the door.
The rest of my Wednesday raced to its conclusion – picking up kids, dropping off a husband destined for deer camp. I drove back to our home that evening with boys begging for fast food while I had a Crock-pot of something they wouldn’t like waiting in our kitchen. I held my ground. If I gave in now, I would not make it through the next four days alone.
We returned home to the waiting meal, barely surviving the soup simmering in the slow-cooker. Why did I put in the kale? Kids hate kale. I hate kale.
I cleaned up the kitchen, dumping our half-eaten dinner in the garbage. The boys whined for snacks. What about dessert? There is no dessert, you ungrateful little heathens. Get in the bathtub!
They obliged, laughing and splashing water all over the floor. Three kids in the tiny tub was too many, but I couldn’t bear the added time to bathe them separately, so I fought the water spilling over the edges and “he touched me” and “get away” and “I want to sit by the faucet” and “we want more toys” and splash, splash, splash. That’s it! Get out!
The tension was mounting. I hoped those God-fearing women hadn’t forgotten me tonight.
Pajamas and cleanish teeth and demands that everyone go to the bathroom one last time. “I don’t need to go!” We do this every night. Just go! You have to go! I am not stripping the bed again! Why did we buy bunk beds? They should come with a warning label, “You will lose years applying fitted sheets. Do not purchase if you value good hygiene or your sanity.” I let the hygiene piece slip years ago.
30 minutes after bedtime, they are asleep and I am scrubbing dishes and starting the washer. It’s time to get back to work.
A cry comes from the bedroom, and I wonder which one is having a nightmare. I don’t have time to check. There are dishes to do, clothes to wash, bills to pay.
The cry heightens, taking on a frantic pace that makes me nervous. I drop the dish wand into the empty side of the sink and jog to their rooms. It is my oldest, and when I crawl next to him, my lips graze his forehead. He is a little furnace and through his cries, I detect the bark of a cough I’ve heard before. It sounds like croup arriving hot and heavy, pouncing in the night on its sleeping victim. The thermometer reads 102, and the tension that was palpable moments before is devoured by the strong, animalistic call to be a mother.
Out of the darkness, my better half appears with the soothing calm I had requested. Her voice and gentle hands, dusting his damp hair are all love, and she sweeps him up in her arms and cradles his 60 pounds like he was 6 months again. She’s so good at this part. I had asked for my best self and she materialized out of the most unlikely circumstances.
When I phoned my parents to let them know I would not be making the trip to their house two nights later, my mom laughed. This has happened before. My husband leaves for a bachelor party – the boys vomit chunky milk all over the living room. My husband travels for business – I watch their tiny bodies sprout itchy spots. Last year, on the same exact weekend, the baby went down with croup, landing us in the ER at 3 a.m. I called my husband, tucked away in a deer blind, and through tears, demanded he come home and save me. I was sleep deprived and scared.
Not this time, though. Between the humidifier, my best self, and the dose of oral steroids the doctor prescribed the next morning, we would be okay. I made my oldest a bed on the couch and snuggled in for a restless night, arms wrapped around my biggest little guy as he coughed and cried until morning.
I expected the calm to fade somewhere in the middle of a wakeful night, but it stayed. It stayed through cancelled plans with girlfriends and my parents. I wanted a weekend away in a place where someone else cooks and cleans up our messes, then watches my babies so I can have dinner with friends. With that bark of a cough, the longed-for escape vanished to be replaced by days trapped in the same old house.
We made it through Thursday and gained a few hours of sleep. On Friday, we broke open the Christmas books and movies awaiting December. On Saturday, we drank hot cocoa and stirred giant bowls of pudding.
We put up a Christmas tree and strung lights across our loft. I took temperatures every few hours, checking to see who would be the next to fall. The little one’s eyes started to droop and his fever spiked, but the calm stayed.
Most of our days and nights were spent on the sofa, wrapped up in blankets and a tangle of bony knees and arms. For once, I ignored my to-do list. I read late into the night when the house finally slept, coughs and sniffles interrupting the quiet from time to time. I poured myself a glass of wine and sunk deeper into the couch.
I told that other part of me to shut up and enjoy herself. This was glorious and soul-reviving. She could pay bills and clean toilets later. The dresser full of photos she kept meaning to sort would still be there next week. The friends she might call had things to do, lives that went on perfectly well without her. Put the phone down and revel in the solitude. There was nothing to feel guilty about. The guilt was a lie.
I reminded her of this on Sunday when I was hauling out the Hoover and my oldest whispered, “I want to snuggle you, Mama.” He seldom does this, and as my frustration often stems from his ill-timed shrieks, spills, pushes and shouts, I needed these few days to remember that he was my little boy first, an unruly monster second. I would vacuum later. His black fleece jammies were already covered in sandy blonde dog hair. What did it matter really?
On Sunday evening, when my husband returned, I hid under a blanket and grabbed a book. He could take the reins now, I thought, as I listened to the repeated thud of a soccer ball against our basement wall. Within a few minutes, though, my oldest climbed the stairs, unlocked the gate, and made a beeline for me.
“Mama, do you want to go upstairs and play a game?”
I didn’t answer.
“I’ll even let you pick.”
I really wanted to finish the book, and I opened my mouth to say as much, then stopped. Like the laundry and the dishes and the vacuuming, this too could wait.
We bedded down in thick carpet and played cards in the glow of a Christmas tree. I didn’t rush the game or check my phone or brush him off when he asked to play again. Much to my surprise, I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
I am fortunate to spend hours upon hours with my children. Every day, this is my job, but it is a tiring one. My lesser self takes over and snarls at these babies who pull at me until I unravel. I used to think the answer was to run away, hunt down my better side resting somewhere in the absence of these energy-sucking humans. Sometimes this is necessary, but sometimes, as I was shown this past week, I need to double-down, sink deeper into the couch with these coughing, sneezing, whining gifts I have been given and stay exactly where I am, stop running.
Had you told me that a sick kid and canceled plans would have been the answer to my crumbling sanity at the start of the week, I would have erupted in laughter, quickly adding “good health” to my growing list of prayers. But I’ve learned over the years that while I can easily identify what I need, I don’t always know the best path to get there, so I kept my request simple. “Help me be calm. Help me be loving. Help me be a better mother tomorrow.”
My voice, and the communal voice of women who hardly know me, set sail a prayer that was answered a few hours later in a raspy, heart-sick cry from my child, a cry that wound me back together and spoke new life into an empty shell. No need to leave the house. My very best self was right where I stood.
As we head into another frigid Midwestern winter, one that blows us deep into the recesses of our home until the dawn of spring, I am grateful for the timeliness of this lesson, one that I could not have received if our plans had continued as scheduled and I had run away to find myself in another distraction. I needed a big dose of cabin fever – for that I have prayed, I just didn’t know it.