“It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking … about Spider-Man.” – William Faulkner (with one small edit)
I lean over my sleeping child, curled like a whelk in his bed, holding a frayed edge of his blanket to his nose as he sucks his thumb. He is small and fuzzy headed and still dreaming and I don’t want to disturb this sweet tableau, but it’s 7 a.m. and we have to get moving. “Finn,” I say. “Time to get up, honey.” He opens his eyes. As an infant, Finn’s looks were questionable—the two words that come to mind are “orange” and “forehead.” But the moment he opened his eyes I felt 70% sure that he would not grow up to live in a belltower, eating people’s cats to survive. His eyes are enormous, wide-set and serene. I never get tired of looking at them. This morning he blinks at me with those beautiful blue orbs and for a moment everything is great, but then the rotten, mouth part of his face opens to deliver the first blow of the day:
“Leave me alone! I’m NOT your best friend!”
Here we go.
I don’t mean to pick on Finn, because honestly, the other two have also let us know we’re not friend material. Finn just happens to be the most skilled with his barbs, and it’s hard not to feel a little bit impressed when you see him so easily navigate to your deepest insecurities and punch them right in the kidneys.
“I’m gonna throw your foot in the trash can!” he’ll shout. (OK, not a great example of my deepest insecurity, but still worth a mention.)
“I don’t want you to be my mommy!” That’s more like it.
“No, YOU go sit in time out!” A classic.
“You’re not funny!” OK, too far.
“I don’t want to go to the park! I want to do NUFFFFFFFINNNGGG!” (That’s actually me.)
Jem and Bran watch Finn raging against the parental machine and they take notes. Sometimes the three of them harmonize their whines, creating an echo chamber that haunts my dreams. But most of the time the ringleader—let’s say it’s Bran this time—will choose to say something crappy, we will choose to ignore him, and the other two lackeys will shout “MOMMY BRAN IS TALKING TO YOU” over and over until we let them know the message was received. It’s some next-level bullying and they are gonna make a lot of people miserable someday.
Seriously though, what is happening right now? I know it’s boring and trite to complain about an age group. I get it. I didn’t really relate to people griping about the terrible twos, because ours felt more adorably nutty than terrible. Threes were a little crazy, sure, but doable. But fours, man. Fours are for the birds.
The first full-on public temper tantrum I ever experienced with one of my children happened just before they turned four, in an unfortunate incident involving Spider-Man bubbles, the boy who wanted them, and the floor of Target.
It was awful, but it also felt like a rite of passage. Embarrassing public meltdown? Check. Except, there was no passage. Time had become a flat circle. We’ve been stuck in that Target ever since. Every day is a war of independence where Matt and I try to figure out where to surrender and where to hold our ground—all on the fly, and all against an army that is bigger, louder and more ruthless than ours.
Take today. It’s Saturday morning as I am writing this. Matt has run off claiming he needed to go to Home Depot, but he’s probably parked on some nearby block, sobbing relentlessly.
I have put on “The Incredibles,” which is what Jem and Bran wanted to watch, but not Finn. I have to fill him with tubes of yogurt to end his meltdown. He’s now sitting next to me, playing with his Transformers in a lactose daze. As soon as I have Finn quieted, Jem comes in with a plastic tub of Play Dough. When I open it to reveal a dried-out lump, he upends a box of markers, blind with fury. The markers are now bleeding into the rug while Jem cleans them up by placing one in the box every hour. Bran approaches asking for a snack, which is a thing he does every 3 minutes. I tell him no and he loosens a howl from his soul that threatens to rend the space-time continuum asunder. He is on the floor writhing as if my words have poisoned him. It is only the first hour of our day together.
These kids are owned by their emotions in a way I cannot fathom, and because of this, Matt and I must be in control of our own emotions in a way that is nearly impossible. When one slams his head backwards into my nose as I try to wrestle him into some pants, I cannot drive him to the nearest landfill like I want to. The shrieks, the backtalk, the defiance—I have to let it all flow over me and not rise to meet fire with fire. Because once I start screaming I might never stop.
The only problem with this approach is that when you tamp down your emotional reaction to stressors, weird things start to happen. Last week it was waves of panic. This week it’s a pound of pressure on my frontal lobe. These damn four-year-olds are gonna make me do the one thing I do not want to do, and that thing is yoga.
I do recognize that a lot of the normal, child-rearing challenges we face are exacerbated by our trio’s mob mentality. It’s like the dance scene in “Beat It” where the gang leader comes strutting down the street looking dangerous and all the riffraff sitting on the sidewalk perk up and start to follow him and soon it’s an army of bad guys flicking their wrists and waving their pelvises and making a daggone spectacle of themselves! Our home life is like that video, but with fewer guitar riffs and more people yelling at each other to put shoes on.
Back when the chaos was purely physical, it wasn’t so bad. Now it’s psychological and physical, which is a lot trickier. Our kids have developed opinions, and are willing to throw down over them any time, any place.
Still, no matter how hard things get, I refuse to live in fear of doing what I want to do. And this stubbornness leads me to reckless behavior, like taking Jem and Bran into Ellwood Thompson’s and not putting them in a cart because dammit, they are four years old and they will listen to me. And then I end up chasing them down aisles hissing threats as they throw bags of organic gluten-free hot dog buns in my path. Once, a cashier actually whispered to me, “Do you need help?” I was mortified, because it felt like the kind of intervention that should only happen for people who are being sex trafficked, not for mothers shopping with more than one child.
I’m spending a lot of time these days not giving up various ships, even when the ships are being really mean. There are many things that help me get through it. Babysitters, parents, friends, books, writing, tea, whiskey drinks, self-deprecation, Game of Thrones, etc. It helps when my kids do something really funny. It helps when they draw me pictures, say they love me and call me Blatt-Gull (Batgirl). It helps when I come downstairs in an old bathrobe and they tell me they like my dress. It helps when I tuck them in and they ask me to stay and talk about our plans for the weekend. It even helps when they present me with flowers yanked out of my garden, root ball and all. And it especially helps when every evening, no matter how bad the battles have been that day, they climb into my arms to heal and be healed.
Loving your kids is easy. Parenting them is hard. It can be hard in small ways, and it can be hard in big ways. But it’s all hard. The reason I know this is because the best work is always, always the hardest work. And raising good humans requires our best work.
No one can or should tell you how you to feel about this experience. If you choose to see it as a nonstop lovefest in which gratitude is the only legal tender, hey, that’s great. If it feels less like surfing up a rainbow’s ass and more like someone kicking you in the nuts (because someone is literally kicking you in the nuts), I know a guy who can commiserate. And if it feels like you’re skating on ice that could crack open at any second, and the speed of it all blows your hair back and drives your heart wild with exhilaration and fear, I bid you welcome.
These early years are no joke. Whether it’s one kid, three kids, or eight kids, it can be draining as much as it can be fulfilling. How you cope with it is your own business. Laugh. Bake. Write. Run. Have a glass of wine. Heck, have two. Do whatever you need to take care of yourself, tune out the people telling you you’re doing it wrong, and while you’re at it, tune out the kid who keeps asking you for applesauce. He’s not your best friend, anyway.