Some days I live in an opera. Ronan and Callum are both into singing right now, and they will sing whole conversations just for the heck of it. A recent song-convo had me shaking silently with laughter as I got out the night diapers:
Callum: “It’s time for bed. Go to sleep, little Ronan, go to sleep.”
Ronan: “No, no, NO, no NO! It’s not time for bed.”
Callum: “Yes, yes, yes, YES yes. It’s time for bed so don’t say no.”
Ronan: “I want to say no. Noooooooo ….. no.”

Ronan is still a fully devoted mama’s boy. Last week I asked Dr. G to handle naptime so I could get some extra sleep and try to recover from a cold. Ronan sat outside my closed door wailing for me for several minutes. I heard Callum clomping down the hall to visit. I heard him scramble down next to his sobbing brother and say in the most sympathetic tone he could muster, “I’m so sorry, brother. You are sad. You want to be with mommy.”
Ronan stopped crying. “Yes, I do.”
Callum: “I’m sorry. Why do you want to be with mommy?”
Ronan: “I just want her.”
Callum: “Mommy has to be in there because she’s feeling so yucky. Daddy will take care of us. Is that good, brother? Do you feel better?”
Ronan, crying again: “Noooooo. I just want mommy!”

Callum gave up and clomped back down the hall. I was a little teary over his wonderful attempt. He showed sympathy, validated Ronan’s feelings, invited him to talk about it, explained the situation, offered an alternative. This from the kid who thinks it is really fun to whomp people on the back of the head with a plastic bat. This from the kid who would rather moan through gritted teeth for ten minutes than say aloud that he would like another cracker. What a sweetheart.

Another sweetheart in the family, Abigail, has been wondering lately what God’s plan is for her life. She thinks maybe she will have lots of wonderful children that she can tell about God, or maybe she will be a church. “Not like a building. Because a person can’t be a building. But somebody who gathers people together to talk about the Lord.” I told her I could see her doing either, or both, or maybe even something totally different. The fun thing about the future is we don’t know exactly how it will turn out. I reminded her that God has a plan for her right now, while she is only five years old, as the bible verse she learned in Sunday School said: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” I love how that verse takes away some of the complications I tend to add to life. If we see something good to do, most of the time we should just do it. Voila, God’s plan. Love grows as you share it. Abigail was glowing at the thought of being part of The Plan already. She started thinking of people she could be kind to. In fact, like many children her age, she is already generous and thoughtful. We accidentally came to the park with extra juice boxes and she asked if she could pass them out to her soccer team. She had been given money to buy a gift and she added her own money so she could buy two. When she sees me getting stressed out, she asks what she can do to help. Also like many children her age, Abigail is capricious with her kindness and she wails often at the horrible unfairness of her life. But when she sets her mind on doing something nice, she doesn’t count the cost. She will empty her piggy bank or give up her TV show or let her brothers rampage through her room without complaint. None of that is as important to her as doing whatever nice thing she has settled upon in her heart.

I wish I sang more often, and sat on the floor with somebody sad more often, and emptied my piggy bank for others more often without feeling the pinch. Sometimes I wish I were more like my children.

Callum shocked the entire preschool staff this week by a)refusing to go to class and b)establishing his refusal with a full-on endless thrash-n-wail in the school lobby, interrupted briefly by my taking him outside for a breather and briefly again by his teacher taking him into class to distract him. I tried my usual gimmicks. No dice. Ronan knew the drill. He patiently played with a train in the lobby and waited for Callum to calm down. When that didn’t happen, he was surprised to go into class alone, but happy to escape the noise.

Callum loves preschool, and is loved by it. His teachers adore his game-for-anything enthusiasm. But that day he just wasn’t feeling it. Was there something horribly wrong? Was he ill? No, I reassured everyone. He does this several times a week (Shock and disbelief all around). Yes, it’s so. I sadly eyed my unopened computer bag and took him back home. But an hour of cookie-baking and puzzle-playing, just Callum and Mommy, set him right. I realized it had been weeks, nay, months, since the two of us had been alone together for such a stretch of time, and it was lovely, fishing bits of egg shell out of the batter together, giggling and coughing in the clouds of flour mist created by his overzealous dumping, licking cookie dough off spoons, dumping five puzzles at once and putting them all back, shouting with special joy when the ice cream truck piece clicked into place. We didn’t care too much about the finished cookies, having eaten so much dough. Callum said he was ready for preschool now. Parenting connundrum: really, I thought, I should let him experience the full consequences of his tantrum and not allow him to return. But if I did let him go back, I could still get in 45 minutes of writing time! Back into the car it was!

My time with Callum got me itching for a similar experience with Ronan, my snugglebug boy. So tonight I sneaked out with him for a little date. We went to the construction site and actually got out of the car to get a closer look at all the trucks, which were parked and locked up for the weekend. Ronan studied the one closest to the fence, the roller, and assured me that he could drive it. Could I call a worker to let us in, he wanted to know? No. He knew it was a long shot. Then we went to the gas station and I AGAIN let him get out of the car to help push the buttons on the machine and put the hose in the gas tank. He washed, squeegied and dried the three inches of windshield he could reach, pleased as punch. Our last stop was our favorite store: Target. When he plays “This Little Piggy” on his own toes, he says, “This little piggy went to Target.” We were there to pick up some water filters but directly across from them he noticed a nice blender on sale. He notices blenders wherever they appear, searching department store ad mailers for them regularly, spotting them on cluttered shelves in thrift stores. His first spontaneous prayer was “Thank you Jesus for a blender,” and he is an excellent smoothie maker. Our blender pitcher is cracked and missing the lid and the motor smells all burned from the number of times I have failed to seat the pitcher properly on the base. I told him we could buy the blender. O! Joy upon joy! We rushed home. “We got a blender!” Ronan shouted. A lovely date indeed.

Sending Abigail off to kindergarten is akin to wearing noise-canceling headphones for eight hours a day. I have this constant feeling that I am missing important information. What is going on where she is? She goes out the door with her dad at 8 every morning. She doesn’t walk back through it until 4 pm. By then she is a puddle of angsty exhaustion from being on her best behavior all day and I’m lucky if I can pry two details out of her. “I only finished two works this morning,” she might say (she is supposed to complete five learning activities before recess). What were they? She forgot. Did anything make her want to laugh or cry or feel angry or proud? “No. But David had a weird mark on his nose and I didn’t know what it was. It had little dots in it.” And that is all the information I get about eight hours of her life.

About once a month I float the idea of moving her to half days, but Abigail and her father are both adamantly against it. So having her home with me for two sick days and one half-day this week was a treat. By sheer luck, she experienced one of the most magical days of her life. The way it got started was that she wanted to do a play for her dad based on the wedding of Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder in These Happy Golden Years. We carefully read the description in the book and set about making a costume. We wrapped a crushed straw hat in my greenish T-shirt and secured it with a headband, then tied it on her head with a ribbon– bow to the side. She put on a long-sleeved black shirt and my black cocktail dress on backwards over it, which I hiked up and tied around her tiny waist with a black cloth belt, arranging the extra material like a bustle. Dr. G. had luckily just acquired a square gold pin from some university ceremony and I pinned it at Abigail’s throat. She wanted to color her bangs brown for further authenticity but I put the kibosh on that.

Abigail swished to the mirror and reverence descended. She cocked her head this way and that. She held her own tiny hands demurely. She was transformed. Our thrown-together bits and pieces had converged into The Wedding Outfit. “Mom, call me Laura from now on,” she said. I served as a stand-in for Almanzo Wilder in the back yard. We walked around holding hands and then stood by the patio table, pretending it was Pastor Brown’s house. “Will you be my wife and promise to love me the best you can for all your days?” Almanzo asked. “I will,” said Laura. “Will you be my husband and promise to love me the best you can for all your days?” she asked. “I will,” said Almanzo. “And now we are husband and wife!” She grinned and twirled. We did the ceremony once more for emphasis.

Abigail stayed in character and in costume until bedtime. She sang songs she remembered from the books: “In the starlight, in the starlight, we are gay and free.” She practiced pushing her bonnet back so it hung off of her neck by the ribbons. She pretended to ride and drive horses. “I really am almost exactly like Laura,” she told me, wide-eyed. “I have bangs like she does, and I sing beautifully like she does, and I love my Pa like she does, and I like to wear my bonnet like she does, and maybe I am her, except only five years old.”

It was hilarious watching this black-clad 1890′s prairie woman incorporating the activities of a 21st-century child into her day. I kept mentally applying photo captions.
“The intrepid Mrs. Wilder rides a red scooter.”
“Mrs. Wilder lies in her giant nest of recently trimmed tree branches.”
“Mrs. Wilder reluctantly eats a chicken nugget.”
“The unfortunate Mrs. Wilder gags on a tomato.”
“The allegedly musical Mrs. Wilder annoys everyone with her plastic yellow flute.”

I talked Abigail out of wearing the costume to bed and refused to allow her to wear it to school today, but I have a feeling that my little black dress has permanently moved on to a higher purpose. Having spent perhaps years, cumulatively, in costumes and characters as a child myself, I don’t begrudge the loss a bit. It feels more like a gain. Bonjour, dear Laura.

Captain Obvious perks up his head, looking for an opening in the conversation. No, I take it back– he doesn’t look for an opening, he just starts talking. And talking, and talking, and talking. “I want some more eggs, please. Because I ate all my eggs and so …now they are all gone and… my plate is empty. There is no food on it at all. Except just one more bite and I am eating it now until it is gone. But… you gave me some eggs for breakfast but… I still want to eat them for such a long time because I need them. Because… you are kidding me, Brother! What is that?” and he’s gone. My continually conversing Callum. He loves to construct long sentences with every conjunction and conjunctive adverb he can squeeze in. He enunciates so pristinely that he sometimes sounds like a computer or a Shakespearean actor. He has a certain earnest pomposity in his delivery that makes his deadly dull observations supremely entertaining. He will often repeat a sentence several times, emphasizing a different word each time. It’s like listening to a little 50-year-old professor with a babyish voice. Dr. G. and I love to imitate him in the evenings as we do our chores.

Ronan, on the other hand, only speaks with a purpose in mind. He allows his brother to prattle on for both of them and only plunges in with a well-placed sentence as necessary: “I want a big sip of your coffee, Mom.” “I am mad at Callum. I broke the train tracks and he bit me.” He is especially intent upon learning to say what I want to hear while continuing to do whatever forbidden thing he is doing. “I’m coloring on paper, Mom.” “I’m just putting this away, Mom.” “I’ll be careful.” “I didn’t.” “I won’t.” “I’m just cleaning it up.” “Just let me try it a little bit, I will do it the right way.” He has managed to dump out all the bubble bath, empty the water filter, scribble on the couch, take things from his siblings, and more, all while doing his best Eddie Haskell impression. He does want to please me so long as he can please himself at the same time, and if the two are in conflict, well– let’s just say I’m developing a very quick response time to ominous silence. I don’t want to make him out to be a child filled entirely with devilment– he is isn’t. He is as sweet as can be, and yet also swept along by a powerful curiosity about the properties of matter and undeterred by time outs or my distress when his experiments go wild.

A special gift of this phase of life with the boys is the opportunity to witness their conversation on a daily basis. In general, young two-year-olds don’t talk to each other much, even if they are in a class or day care. My boys ignore most other toddlers, but when they are alone together, they plot and discuss. They argue about matters of basic fact, and even if I point out that they are both correct, it has no bearing on the level of passion with which they defend their positions. “We are going HOME!” “NO! We are going to our HOUSE!”

I especially love hearing them plan imaginative adventures. “We have to put on our hats and go to work, Brother.”
“Yeah, brother, yeah. Our hats for working. And our hammers!”
“Yes, let’s put our hammers in this bag so we can work on our work stuff at the restaurant.”
“Restaurant? Yum, yum! Let’s eat dinner. I will get the dinner for you, Callum.”
“Okay! And sing Happy Birthday because it’s a cake.”
“Okay!” They sing.

They also enjoy taking turns making up the wrong words for familiar songs, especially Ring Around the Rosie. Callum will sing “Ring around the lola,” and Ronan will add, “Pocket fulla pola!” and then they fall down laughing.

As a child I used to fantasize about sneaking into the secret worlds of the Brownies or Leprechauns and seeing their mischievous magic at work first hand. Now I wake up to the sounds of my boys chatting and singing each morning and feel I’ve somehow stumbled upon the secret door.

Potty training: it is one of those parenting things that hovers like Godzilla over your children’s early toddlerhood, a looming monster that scares parents for months ahead of its arrival. Anticipating those misplaced rivers of urine and piles of excrement, the constipation, the capricious ebb and flow of toddler enthusiasm, followed by the number of times we will have to rush a small child into a dirty bathroom at the back of the Home Depot or grocery store—it is just frightening. For some of us, the fears are unfounded. We wait until the child is ready, and then she just does it. Unless she relapses later. But more often our kids are kind of ready or only ready if dad is around or if it involves being naked all the time. Add twins into the equation and it is like Godzilla and King Kong both. My Moms of Multiples discussion board fills with potty training questions about once a month, as each of us gets ready to try, or has tried and it didn’t work, or it worked with one but not the other. Should we start? Wait longer? Gradual method or three day method? Quit? Keep going? Keep a potty seat in the car?

In my house we have done all of the above. My original plan with the boys was to wait until they were at least two and a half. I trained Abi when she was just two, at her request, and though she got the idea within half a day and was super happy about it at first, it took another six months before her bladder could really cope with long outings, stressful situations, and engrossing play. Abi’s brothers, though, had other ideas. Somewhere around the end of July they both started taking off their shorts and diapers as soon as there was a little pee in them. If I left them naked, they’d pee around the house. If I put them in another diaper, they’d pee another tablespoon of urine and take it off. I couldn’t afford the diapers and I was sick of the puddles. We had one of Abi’s old potty seats floating around and they both liked experimenting with it. I tried instituting the rule that if a diaper is off, pee goes in the potty, but it didn’t stick.

I was sick of the wasted diapers too. I wanted to use that money for part of their preschool tuition. When Abi started school, I declared, we would start potty training. Two potties, candy and stickers for rewards, hide all the diapers. Callum was distressed when I took off his last diaper and tried to put it back on, though it was full of about five pounds of nighttime pee. He understood that this was a big change and had to process it emotionally. Ronan was excited by the new game. I gave them gallons of watered down juice and had them walk around naked, watching potty training videos and reading potty training books. Whenever one started to go, I’d rush him to the closest potty chair, cheerfully announcing, “Pee goes in the potty!” Then I’d cheer and give him an m & m. By day two they were both hitting the potty with regularity, though occasional accidents were still happening. This method of potty training encourages you to get the kids out of the house on the third day to show them that they can really do it. We went on walks and bike rides (it was overcast and coolish) and even did a snack time at a Dunkin Donuts down the street. We went to the park one day too, and open house at their preschool, all in underwear. They did fine every time.

By the time a week was up, though, they were starting to resist. Callum proved to have a bladder of steel. He’d hold it for two or three hours and then unleash a torrent, standing there sobbing in the growing pool. “Help me, mom, help!” Ronan would sneak off and pee anywhere except the potty. His favorite spot was an old mattress in the corner of the playroom, which fortunately had a waterproof cover. Sometimes they would be into it and other times I couldn’t persuade them for love or backhoe stickers.

Time to recalibrate. I was tired of the puddles. We have a new rule: diapers while out around town. Choice of diaper or not at home. But the naked boy must a)make an attempt to get to the potty when he has to go or b)at least try when I ask him to (once every 1.5 hrs) or the diaper goes back on. Callum almost always picks diaper, except for a couple hours a day when he likes to practice his potty skills. Ronan almost never chooses a diaper, and he is well-controlled except that he gets bored and tries to find alternate receptacles/locations to unleash. For the past two days his location of choice has been his brother’s bed, the rascal. They say not to get mad at potty accidents, but when he threatened a fourth attempt my eyes about rolled back in my head. This was no accident, anyway. “PEE GOES IN THE POTTY, RONAN! DON’T YOU DARE PEE ON THAT BED!” I carried him down the hall under my arm while I maniacally wheezed peegoesinthepottypeegoesinthepotty and plopped him on the potty, where he dutifully peed. If he has a diaper on and has to poop, he will remove it and sit on the potty to do the deed. Good job Ronan!

I’m kind of happy that Ronan is taking the lead on this milestone, though, after having his brother outpace him on nearly every other one. I try to treat them each as an individual but they are together virtually all the time, and when we are out and about they often hear a stream of comments about how much taller Callum is and how much bigger his smile is and how much more he talks etc etc. All true, but I wonder how Ronan will feel about it as he gets older. I may have to work on a way to curb the public comparisons.

And I’m happy that they encourage each other so much in potty training. They report each other’s successes to me; they say “Nice job! You peed in the potty!” to one another; they share reward stickers and do happy dances for one another. They have also taken to praising me profusely for my own successful bathroom trips. They peer seriously into the toilet bowl. “You did it, Mom! There’s pee in there! Good job! Good job!” Yes, if there is one thing I do well in life, it’s pee in the potty.

I miss my first best friend, Shannon G. I had others after her, but she was the standard-setter for all girls who came after. She lived three doors up and across the street, and we were together most of the day, nearly every day, from ages four to six or seven. My mom called us her little space cadets because we roamed imaginary worlds as we roamed the real one. Shannon G liked our huge dress-up box of old prom dresses. I liked the patch of woods behind her place where we could build forts. There is nothing so fun as sneaking around the woods in a pinned up pink prom dress, searching for aliens. We never wore sunscreen and it was my job to peel the lacy strips of skin off her back whenever she burned and peeled. It was her job to get me access to the junk food at her house when snack time rolled around, since there wasn’t a speck of it in my house. She had actual princess hair: thick black waves cascading down her back. My hazel eyes seemed to change color in sun or shade. We were so magical we couldn’t get over ourselves.

I remember how my heart broke when Shannon G. switched schools and found somebody she liked better. She tried so hard to be nice about it. “She’s my best friend,” she told me sadly, “but you are still my OLDEST friend.” I miss her even more now that I realize that Abi will not have the chance for a first best friend like that. The houses on our street are full of children, but I only know one other family with a stay-at-home parent, and she is only in Phoenix half of the year. Abi goes to kindergarten at a charter school several miles away rather than the neighborhood school. She lives in a large, desert city while I grew up in a small mountain town. It has dawned on me that I will not be able to give my children many of the experiences I most cherished as a child, in part because of my and Dr. G’s adult choices and in part because even the rudimentary neighborhood village I recall from my childhood has vanished.

My mom didn’t have a Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or anything similar in our neighborhood from the early 80’s. But I remember that houses in which all the adults worked were so rare that we called the children who lived in them latchkey kids. They would have keys on lanyards tucked inside their shirts to let themselves in after school. So my mom did see and speak to other adults often. And she did get long, long, long breaks from us when we were at other kids’ houses. And she did get help from the neighbors in handling problems with her own kids. When Shannon G. and I were chronically late to kindergarten (we had to walk through a stand of pine and manzanita to get there; it’s no wonder we never made it, given the butterflies and fall leaves and long clumps of moss), both mothers got together and devised a plan to get us there on time. It included Shannon G.’s third grade brother not letting go of our hands until we were on school grounds and prizes when got home. When my brother and his friend Nathan got too full of mischief, my parents and Nathan’s sometimes meted out a shared punishment, and sometimes my mom just decreed bans on their playing together. She would insist that I occasionally play with neighbors I didn’t really like as a form of character building; at the time I believed that was her sole reason, but now that I am a mom, I know better. Children playing with other children are not continually begging the adults for food and attention.

And now all that is gone, and many of us who have had the gift to make a choice to be stay at home parents have found it much harder than we expected compared to our memories of our own mothers, and tragically isolating. Before they are school aged, the kids have no one to play with but their mother; the mother has no one to speak with easily, regularly, face-to-face, other than her kids and spouse. So we mothers join playgroups and clubs and enroll our children in whatever activities we can afford so they can see other actual living children and try to sweet talk other overtired parents into hauling their kids across town for a playdate (I’ll set up a baking soda and vinegar experiment in the water table! I’ll bake oatmeal-flax-chocolate chip cookies!) and text our far-off friends and sisters and sometimes manage to swing a real conversation with the supermarket checker or another parent at the park. But all this organizing and packing and planning and driving and scheduling just to see other human beings is about as hard as just staying home alone, and more expensive. At least it is for little ol introvert me.

Some of the moms I know double down, homeschooling and gardening extensively and starting little family businesses. These moms seem happy to be well out of the flow of the larger society, busy with the enormous pile of work that is family life and stressed with trying to provide everything for their children themselves, but not busy with crazy chauffeuring schedules or PTA meetings or stressed with bills for gymnastics or preschool tuition. Others mothers I know go back to work after all, acknowledging that the lonely life of the modern stay at home parent is not for them. And they are often happy too, though some wonder if they are doing enough for their kids and enough at their jobs. But many moms who tried staying home full time and then went back to work have told me that their relationships with their kids improved with a little separation included. They are able to enjoy their children more when they share responsibility for their care. And of course I am seeing these other mothers from far off, just glimpses, since mostly I am in my own house with my own kids, and not sure that my descriptions or assessments them are correct. It’s just that I watch other mothers and question other mothers and think about other mothers as I look for solutions to the dissolution of the village.

My daughter loves her new school and has been trying out a different kid each day as a possible best friend. While I find this behavior a little too queen bee for my tastes, I’ll take it, considering my concerns that she would not have a best friend at all. And her brothers and I are really enjoying having more time to pay attention to each other while she is out of the house. Abi and Ronan and Callum do not live in a village, or even a mountain town, and neither do I. We are city girls and boys. We are more alone than the families who came before us but we make our way. I don’t want to homeschool or return to work. I wish I had people to talk to and wander over to visit. When the weather cools off I’ll restart my little kid neighborhood holiday parties, which helped me find one stay at home mom (who moved away), and maybe someone else will turn up this year. Maybe.

Abi is five now. That’s just crazy! Unforseen! At bedtime I said, “You used to be so little, and now look at you! What is your secret?” Abi laughed and replied, “I don’t have a secret! It’s the Lord’s secret! And anyway, YOU did it too. You grew up into an adult. And so did your husband.” She elaborated on various ways she would continue to grow. First on her mind? “I will have a pelvis as big as yours!” She needs a big pelvis, she says, so she can fit babies in there. As soon as she grows up she is going to find a husband that meets two criteria: a) she really likes him and b) he wants at least four children. She didn’t add a third criterion to the list but she plans to move back in with me when she has all the kids, so he must be fond of living with in-laws as well. She would like to know in advance how many of her kids I am willing to take care of at a time; of course she will give me breaks if I need them, making all the children go down for a nap. But usually her babies will not be on a schedule. She will just set up eating, sleeping, and diaper stations and let them pick what they want to do. “How do you know if a baby is hungry or sleepy?” she asks.

Conversing with this girl is one of the pleasures in my life. Tonight it was mapping out domestic bliss; other times it is how to save the wild tigers, becoming an Olympic swimmer, or renaming all her dolls as Little House on the Prarie characters. One night they were all named Jack, after Laura’s pet dog. I run into a lot of trouble with the invented Super Abi stories I tell her each night, as she immediately notices any logical inconsistencies or injustices in them and wants to correct them, whether it is endangered tigers or bad guys not getting in enough trouble for their evil deeds or poor people staying poor even after Super Abi helps them. Once I had Super Abi and her team go to a developing country to rescue a small people group from a volcano or some such. She drank some water with really bad germs in it while she was there and turned green– luckily that was the only thing that happened to her because she was a superhero, and some fairy dust solved the problem. Real Abi was upset. Why, if Super Abi was doing exactly what God wanted her to do, would she get sick from doing it? And why was she the only one to get sick, and no one else on her team, if they all drank the water? And why didn’t she get as sick as a regular person would, because that didn’t seem fair to regular people? And did the people who lived there all the time get sick from the water too? Shouldn’t Super Abi fix the water somehow so no one got sick anymore? Though it was already late, I sent Super Abi back to the volcano and had her fix the water. Sheesh. What a girl.

I made Abi a poster of five things about her that are special. Here’s what I put on it:
1. She makes her own recipes for Bell Pepper Cups, Snudge, and Strawberry Milk.
2. When she goes to school, she plans to do art, then science, then art, then science, then art.
3. She has so much love in her heart that she has to use similes to describe it: “I love you as much as a walk around heaven forever.”
4. She knows that if something feels good on her hands– like mud or flour– it will feel EVEN BETTER on her whole body.
5. She asks beautiful, interesting questions: “What was your least favorite thing to do with your family when you were a kid? When you get to God’s Kingdom, what will you ask him to let you do? I want to hop on the stars without getting burned.”

Abi is five. This is crazy! This is unforseen! I hope that one day she has her four children and saves the tigers and cleans the water and hops on the stars without getting burned.

My lovely boys have turned two. It was a bittersweet occasion for me, celebrating how far they’ve come (they live so LARGE!) and saying goodbye to my last two babies (for REALSIES!). And looking with some anxiety at the struggles ahead– beds, potty training, pacifiers. Helping these little people shed the last vestiges of babydom is not a task for the fainthearted. And I am a little fainthearted.

We already tried the two beds thing. Callum was in a bed for almost a month and doing great; we let Ronan switch over too. This grave mistake unleashed a cascade of naptime and bedtime horrors. Ronan is back in the crib, which has cut the horror by about 25%, but Callum has now fully absorbed the level of shenanigans that are possible at sleep times. I’ve given up trying to clean every puddle of urine. I just damp dry it with plans to lug in the steam cleaner more often. I’ve dragged large items of furniture out of the room. I’ve stood secretly poised for a quarter of an hour at the cracked open door, ready to pounce the second Callum burbles his evil “I’m misbehavin’” cackle on his way out of bed. If I hear one more child shout “Get nakey!” in that bedroom I might start duct taping their diapers to their torsos.

Dr. G. and I commiserate over the fact that docile Abi did not prepare us for parenting actual toddlers. Like, at all. We had to teach her how to open doors, as it never occurred to her to try it herself. Though she has always had a terrible time falling asleep, when we put her in a toddler bed at age 2, she just continued with her usual hour of charming off-key singing and story-telling in bed. Her rare tantrums lasted five minutes. Her biggest rebellion was refusing to eat dinner. She used the same play kitchen for four years, microwaving toys that had gotten on her bad side, and it stayed in near-pristine condition; then the boys started using it, and within six months I didn’t even want to put the kitchen out on the curb with a “free” sign on it, it was so jaggedy and missing so many parts and held together primarily by six months worth of gradually applied duct tape. Crashing it over to ride it like a horsey will do that to a play kitchen. As will dragging it around as a feat of mighty strength, or trying to take pieces off on purpose so it can be “fixed,” or pushing it over to the window to see if it can be used as a ladder to reach the cords of the blinds.

And yet the sweetness of these boys is near-constant. They have a new thing of trying to kiss each other goodnight when they have their pacifiers in– the cutest and most awkward clacking of plastic ever. The other day Ronan was lonely for Callum, who was sleeping much longer than he had, and he asked to look at pictures of his brother on my phone. Abi was out all day today and Callum kept accidentally calling the larger children on the Chick Fil A play structure by her name. He brought a tear to my eye tonight when he and Ronan were struggling for access to my lap; he raised a hand to hit Ronan, thought better of it, and put his hand back down. It was a beautiful display of self-control. Now if only he could extend that to naptime. I’d love for him to think, “I really want to climb into my sleeping brother’s crib and flop down on him,” and then NOT DO IT. Maybe he does heed the still, small voice in that room sometimes, how do I know?

I spend a lot of time lately soothing hurt feelings when one of the boys tries to do something nice for the other and is rejected. They love to practice sharing and helping and hugging each other but they don’t always have the most well-conceived plans. “No, he doesn’t want you to put pecans in his mouth. His mouth is full of water,” I might explain to Ronan. “No, he doesn’t want a hug now, he is fixing the door with his tools,” I might explain to Callum. “But you are such a nice brother!” It is hard to learn to show love by giving others what they want, rather than what you want them to have. I guess they’ve got a few more years to work on it. I could probably use a few more years of work on that myself.

This post is only indirectly about kids. It is mostly about me, me, me. I think this choice of topics has to do with my sitting alone, at the moment, in a hipster hotel near downtown Phoenix where everything is Jetsons mod and all the staff are enchantingly tattooed and when you get out of the hotel pool, you relax in a beehive-shaped cocoon/nest thingy and peek out from the shadows at the glittering water wall opposite. The concierge will give me unlimited free junk food and sodas 24 hours a day too. She gives them to everyone but I pretend it is special for me because she understands my awkwardness about not knowing what to do with myself, all this extra time just flopping around, like when I sleep too long on my arm and it goes numb and I scream in fear at this strange hand near my face before I recognize it, dangling awkwardly as if it both does and doesn’t belong to my body. Familiar and foreign. Free time, I hardly know ye, but I will kiss ye on the lips.

My solo one-night getaway is possible because hotels in Phoenix are DIRT CHEAP right now, given that no one wants to come here for 109 degree days and 99 degree nights and possibly get caught in a HABOOB into the bargain. Nobody here actually calls them haboobs, by the way. Any English word with “boobs” in it is not going to be taken seriously, no matter how much detritus it blows into the pool. And my night away is also possible because my gracious husband, having acknowledged that the last two months have been a nearly unremitting slog for me (apart from those few days in California—thanks, Mom!), has taken time off work so I can go recuperate. Somebody buy that man a drink. Oh, maybe I should.

Apart from swimming, gazing into the middle distance, and jolting awake from naps sure that I have neglected some essential duty, I’ve been allowing myself to experience a wee tiny little mid-life crisis. I’m 39. Many of my friends are beginning to reap the rewards of years of effort in their careers and vocations. Given that I know wonderful writers from my graduate school program; extremely capable movers and shakers from my years living in DC and environs; and many totally with-it professors and researchers due to my with-it professor husband, it shouldn’t surprise me that so many of them are writing acclaimed books or helping to lead thriving emergent churches or heading up international non-profit organizations or getting rich or making break-through discoveries or, in one case, becoming an ambassador. I don’t feel jealous of any of them—quite the opposite– but I do feel left behind. What was I doing all those years before I had kids? Making wacky faces at myself in bathroom mirrors? Well, yes. I love that. But why didn’t I pick a career or something too? Was I just lollygagging along when I could have been carpe dieming and leaning in and whatnot?

Looking back, it seems that most of my jobs post-graduate school were taken with the aim of saving up enough money to have kids. And then I had the kids. And, being an infamous non-multi-tasker (never try to get me to sing and clap at the same time; it is not going to turn out the way you hope), the kids are what I do. I probably should have done more writing before I had them, but l don’t want to get on that merry-go-round (cf: non-multi-tasker, above) of shoulda woulda coulda. One of my only regrets about the present is that I don’t give myself enough time to write. But I am happy that I have carpe diemed life with my kids. Happy in the abstract– at the moment I don’t miss them a single bit, nor the chores they make. I am lying in bed typing and not having to peel open one last stick of string cheese for a hungry child or sweep up hardened sticky rice or make sure my TV time is productive by folding laundry while I yell at Buffy regarding vampires and fashion choices. WHHEEEEEEE! GRATUITOUS BLOG POST!

Callum and Ronan address each other almost exclusively as “brother.” As in, “Come, on brother, let’s play!” Or “Brother, can I have that?” This habit lends a poignant, universal air to many of their exchanges as they struggle to play together. They have huge goodwill towards one another. They want to do things together. But translating that desire into reality is tough. They have to figure out how to decide what to do, who gets which toys while they do it, and how to talk to each other while they do it. Three very complicated tasks. It’s a microcosm of human relations.

The other day they invented a game called Fop It. Callum was playing with his favorite wooden car puzzle and Ronan brought over a fork. He gave it to Callum. “Fop it, brother!” he suggested. “Okay, I will fop this one,” said Callum. He was not sure what fop meant but he used the fork to pry a puzzle piece out and send it flying. The boys cheered. For a few minutes Ronan was happy to suggest which pieces Callum should fop. “Fop this one. Now fop this one.” But soon he tried to grab the fork away and there were screams and tears. I brought a second fork to the game so they could both fop simultaneously. (What a weird sentence I just typed!) Happiness prevailed for about 20 seconds, until Callum started to only fop pieces that Ronan was already working on. More screams. Callum had a suggestion: “Let’s fop this one together, brother!” So they did that. Then Ronan yelled, “Hide and seek fop!” They both grabbed handfuls of pieces and ran down the hall to throw them into their dark room. Then they came back to get the puzzle tray and their forks, and they did something in the dark with all of them that I did not witness, but it was apparently very funny.

They abandoned Fop for the day, and then first thing in the morning yesterday, Ronan suggested, “Play Fop It, brother.” They did it in the kitchen where the pieces could go skittering across the floor… and under the fridge, and under the stove. Awesome. But watching them from my hover-at-a-distance position at the counter, my heart squeezed with a mix of bittersweet joy and tenderness as they negotiated their play. How hard it must be to grow up! And how hard they try and try! One makes up a word and the other goes with it. They both get angry and get over it a dozen times a day. They hug and kiss and hit and kick and push and cry and laugh and play. Every emotion is turned up to eleven and they still never give up. They play Hide and Seek and Fop It and Going Somewhere and Cookin Somethin and Mechanic and Doctor and Babies and Blocks.

What that means for me is that I am ignored more, which is a bit of a relief, but now I must continually referee fights over territory and resources, which is a grind. Throw Abi into the mix with her weird, complicated ideas for orchestrating imaginative play (you be a pteranadon in a nest. I will bring outfits and you say what a dinosaur would like the best) and it seems there is seldom a time when harmony reigns. Abi is learning much of this for the first time too, right along with her brothers. But I can see it coming, I can feel it coming. Love is here and peace is right behind. Maybe? I hope. Of course it takes a whole life to learn the give and take of close relationships. So maybe the harmony is just going to be in fits and spurts. But I’ll take what I can get.

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