During my awkward but beautiful NKOTB elementary school years, my family spent a lot of time camping. Biannually, usually spring break and once in the summer, we would take a big trip to Myrtle Beach or some other southern spot with great historic locations my father could hike up his tube socks and take us all to. There were five of us in that travel trailer. Sometimes, it was cozy and could hardly contain our Griswald family contentment. And other times …
People hit each other.
The details have faded as the 20+ summers since this one particular event have passed, but I still recall the bullet points. There were these sunshine yellow melamine dishes tucked away in the cabinets of the trailer. For whatever reason, I loved them. We’d unhitch and level off and my mom would go about her routine; putting groceries away and optimistically teasing the amenities. “Those swings look like they go pretty high guys, I don’t know …”. She would hum the latest Top 40 hit from Genesis. Dad would cuss through the setup outside and go find wood. (He was always finding wood.) But of everything in this waltz we watched a thousand times, there was something about those canary dishes that signaled we were really staying. We were on vacation.
One warm afternoon, after the melamine coffee cups had been washed and the Sunbeam bread used to feed the local ducks was tucked away, my brother came in and took a giant proverbial crap right in the middle of everything.
Back then, Matt hated being with us. He barely spoke and when he did it was to complain about what we were eating or where we were or who was there. It was super obnoxious. My parents were just trying to be memory makers, right? They carted us around to check off the snapshots every family had in their photo album in the 1980s … kids on a beach … kids in front of a roller coaster … kids on a hike. It was never enough for him just to stand in formation, put a smile on his face and pretend to relish the thrilling rides at Dollywood. Oh, no. Not Matt. He had to make his disgust and general dislike for the people who grew him known.
Anyway, on this one warm afternoon, after Matt nudged her and nudged her and nudged her, my mom, the sweet lady who weeped at Casey Kasem’s long distance dedications and introduced me to the Shoney’s breakfast buffet, God bless her … well, she completely lost her shit on my brother. Right there in the camper. Her arms were swinging and sounds were coming out at triple speed and didn’t quite form all the way and my brother’s eyes were wide and wild as he succumb to her fury. He had walked across the limb so many times, and on that day, in the camper of family dreams, the limb snapped.
I watched it. The whole thing. So did my sister. So did my dad. I don’t think any of us took a breath for the entire 56 seconds my mother spent physically and verbally retaliating against her almost-teenage punk of a son before storming out of the trailer in tears. Huh, I thought. I guess Mom went crazy.
Then I grew up, had kids of my own and realized we’re all just one forced fart, recorder recital or “She hit me!” away from crazy.
Being a mother is a thankless, soul-sucking, humbling, disgusting, exhausting occupation. I used to imagine my mom pulled everything out of her ass. I needed something for a school project, she got it. I was sick and wanted saltines with peanut butter, she made them. I wanted to try gymnastics, she signed me up. She drove me. She watched me. It all just got done. I never thought about why she needed to take a hot bath and pound peanut M&Ms by 9 o’clock every night. I just never considered it.
And neither do my kids.
I babysat for my niece one summer break during college. She had this little car she could ride on. It had mermaids and fish all over it and sang this stupid song … “I’m a happy mermaid, down in the sea – something, something, something – and dance with me.” She used to scoot around on that thing pressing the button on the steering wheel every 2 seconds. So to my tired ears, it was just, “I’m a, I’m a, I’m a, I’m a …” for minutes on end. The funny thing was, she loved the end of the song. Whenever she got distracted and made it to “… and dance with me,” she laughed with joy. And then she’d go back to pressing the button with the hope of hearing it in its entirety. Of course her rapid trigger finger meant, “I’m a, I’m a, I’m a, I’m a, I’m a ….” The insanity! But now, I am that mermaid car. I am the button on the other end of a child’s fingertip – constantly trying to get it all out, to get to the end, to the point.
The number of times I repeat myself in a day can clock in at no less than 900.
“Get dressed, please … Get dressed, please … Get dressed, please.”
“Eat your breakfast, please … Eat your breakfast, please … Eat your breakfast!”
“Get your coat on, please … Get your coat on, please … Get your coat on, please.”
“Tie your shoes, please … Tie your shoes … Tie your shoes, please.”
“Come on, please … Come on … Come on.”
“Eat your dinner, please … Eat your dinner, please.”
“”Stop jumping off the couch, please …”
“Clean your room, please …”
“Brush your teeth, please …”
“Go to timeout, please …”
“Get in bed, please …”
“Stop talking and go to bed, please ….”
“Go to bed!”
No one hears me. At some point between when they exited the womb and they started using more than 3 words together at a time, my voice was tragically muted. I know, and you dear reader likely know, that if I don’t move the circus along, no one gets where they need to go. No one gets to the bus stop on time and I get yelled at for chasing it down a few stops away. No one feeds the dog and she dies. No one gets their library books and the teacher sends a scathing note home. I’m just trying to help! “I’m a, I’m a, I’m a, I’m a …”
And yet, the gratitude tank runs dry most days. Living in a home with young children means you better be prepared for prison rules, man. Because only your child would take a giant deuce in the middle of the dinner you spent 3 hours making. And then tell you they hate what you made anyway. Only your child would rub her hard moss-colored boogers against the only white shirt you own. Only your child would headbutt you when you’re trying to kiss them, or kick your nose during a friendly tickle or pee on your bath rug or vomit in your hair on your 30th birthday (that really happened). Kids are cruel. They don’t know and they don’t care, and when they do know, they still don’t care.
You have to go into it knowing you won’t collect on those gratitude IOUs they’re leaving all over the tubs they’re pooping in and rooms they’re trashing for at least another 18 years. And that might be ambitious. And you aren’t really allowed to care. You’re expected to be durable and flexible and resilient. You’re expected to be both Betty Draper (in the early seasons) and Sheryl Sandberg, depending on the scenario, and settle for a fart vapor’s worth of appreciation for both social archetypes.
I’ve spent hours planning my menu on Pinterest only to have Sloppy Joan turn her plate over and throw it across the table more times than I care to share. I’ve had chicks climb into my Epsom salts detox bath because they were cold and it looked fun. I’ve walked in to find every item of clothing from the bottom bar of the closet ripped off the hangers and thrown around the room just minutes after I finished putting them away. I’ve had more little people watch me poop than a pony at a county fair.
But we love them.
Sometimes it looks like rocking ourselves in a corner with drool streaming out of ours turned down mouths, but we love them.
It’s an abusive love. Like the way people with ulcers love flaming hot Cheetos. We love their toots and boogers and ridiculous requests and come back for more day after day after day. We plot our escapes and then crave their sticky, sweaty, vaguely pissy scent the second we drop them off.
Being a mother is thankless 23 hours out of every day. But man … they really reel ya in during those 60 minutes when it really counts, huh?
It’s rarely with words. Though sometimes it is sweet, silly, wonderful words I reach into the air, grab and write down somewhere to relive later. But more often it’s a little warm body climbing into my lap while I’m distracted with another conversation. Or a drawing that comes back in a folder from school with stick figures holding hands, the taller one labeled “Mama”. Or a cheerleader. Or an impersonation. Or a cry in the middle of the night. It makes me feel needed and seen and responsible. Yes, it’s a thankless job. It isn’t for the weak or the praise-hungry. The pay is shit. But if you play your cards right and keep your eyes and ears open, the benefits can be pretty sweet.