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.

Though (or perhaps because) Callum and Ronan have no idea what hot cocoa is, it serves as their greatest creative inspiration. If either of them is going to innovate, the result is going to be called hot cocoa. Drinking water with a damp washcloth over the the top of the sippy cup? Hot cocoa. Filling plastic eggs in the sandbox? Hot cocoa. Wildly swirling toys around in the tub? Hot cocoa. Coloring on playdough with markers? Hot cocoa. Who knows where they picked up the phrase. It is one of those cool twin things where they hit upon a shared idea and just keep expanding it together. It does have a nice ring to it, and anytime I hear hot cocoa, I know it is my job to praise it as the most wonderful hot cocoa in the world. Callum likes to play with a measuring cup in the tub and list off ingredients for hot cocoa as he pours and mixes. Most recently, he said, “I need sugar, powder, cinnamon, and a baby duck.” YUMMY HOT COCOA, CALLUM.

Callum rejoices greatly in his growing powers to be understood, and he rejoices even more, if possible, in his growing physical prowess. He is disciplined several times a day for assaulting one sibling or the other; though he clearly feels regret if he hurts them, he is only slowly using other methods to solve his problems. He can even hurt Abi sometimes, though mostly her sobs are ones of betrayal rather than pain. She is totally surprised every single time he takes her down. I praised her to the skies when she finally had the mental wherewithal to stand her ground and hang on tightly to a ball Callum was trying to wrest from her grasp, and, when that failed, pull her foot out from under her. Time out, Callum. You should have heard me cheer the other day when he said, “Excuse me, brother, I need that,” instead of shoving Ronan aside. Yesterday I saw him jumping so high in his crib that his knees were clearing the top rail on each leap. “That is kinda scary to watch,” I said. “Don’t jump so high, please.” Callum laughed maniacally and jumped ever higher, shouting, “Kinda scary! Kinda scary!” Being able to do something that could scare his mother ranked pretty high on his bucket list, I guess.

He surprises me often by reeling off sentences that sound just like a real boy talking. Mundane things, like, “I’m screaming, mom. And Abi’s screaming too!” Apart from the obvious lack of necessity for that communique, it’s pretty good talkin’, and it causes a flutter of panic in the base of my throat that his babyhood is almost over and I have practically missed it, and Ronan’s too. Dr. G. pointed out my detailed blog posts as evidence that I have not, in fact, missed much at all. But the feeling is still there. The boys will be two years old in JUST TWO MONTHS. For me, that is like a nap, a shower after which I forget to comb my hair, and five partly eaten meals away. Two blinks, more or less.

I especially feel like I am missing Ronan’s growing up because his happens so much more under the radar than his brother’s. He can actually fix things now, such as a plastic playhouse door that has come off its hinges or a battery case that has come loose on a remote. Tonight he spent a good while on his belly on the kitchen floor, using a fork and a broom handle to fish things out from under the oven, and he loves to wipe down tables and toys with baby wipes. When he has accomplished something he is proud of, his joy glows off of him like the pink light of a sunset cloud and I can’t help but smile smile smile too. In April, I enrolled the boys in a Messy Art for Toddlers class at the community center a few blocks from us; while Callum would apply his paint and glitter in wide, sloppy gestures and then jet off to run around the room, Ronan would focus, carefully applying each color, each bit of cut paper, each blob of glitter. He would not move for the whole 40 minutes, and loved to hold his art high to show the class at the end. Now he climbs up on our toy cubbies to study his own work hanging on the wall, and to point out its beauty to me. “I did that!” he says. “Paintin! Cutters!” It is nice to hear his sweet voice more and more.

And Abi is changing too. The girl whom a few months ago couldn’t stand to be on the same playground with wild children recently locked herself into a mini train car with a whole bunch of them, and she keeps talking with relish about how LOUD it was, and how I would have SNAPPED at them if I had heard it! And how if we ever go back to that train, she wants to go on that car by herself AGAIN! She has gained so much emotional equilibrium, recovering from disappointments and dislikes much more quickly, with less complaining, than ever before. I can’t tell you how much this growth has improved the dynamic of our family. There is more laughing and more quiet. And she is suddenly very into money. Getting it, giving it, spending it, plotting avenues for all of the above. She is incredulous that I will not let her pedal her trike door to door, selling knick-knacks she has gathered from her room. How is she supposed to get more money then, she wants to know? Indeed, how? She will be in kindergarten in three months, and surely that is old enough, by her lights.

Kindergarten just days away. Well, several dozen days away. It’s all going by in such a rush. It’s that first trip down a waterslide, where you seem to be rushing so steeply, so quickly, and yet so eternally down the twisting pipe. Then comes the mighty splash. Hot cocoa!

This past month included a week that ranks among our hardest ever as a family: all three kids down with a severe stomach flu within a day or so of one another. Just a few days prior, we had all finally recovered from a more minor 3-day version that hit each of us in turn. Then some nasty opportunistic bug attacked. Caring for three small sickies at once is just ridiculous. Triple sickness should not be allowed; isn’t that in the official rule book somewhere? First there is the sheer hard work: all the stripping of beds and clothing and all the scrubbing of floors and bathtubs and the constant loads of laundry. Next there is the mental and physical raggedness of interrupted sleep. Some nights I was lucky to get 20 minutes of silence in a three hour period. Dr. G. and I took shifts on the night watch, but often we had to recruit the other parent because the mess or the number of children awake was so extreme. As the week wore on, we each got better at handling nighttime emergencies on our own, which I guess is a victory of sorts. And Dr. G. adjusted his work schedule so I could have some time to rest each morning before facing the long hours once again on my own.

Abi had it the worst. She was vomiting at least hourly for almost three days, unable to keep down more than a few sips of water at a time, so listless she didn’t move from the couch for most of that time and just drifted in and out of sleep. She wanted me to be the one to hold her every time she threw up. Finally we got some anti-nausea meds from the doctor to get her through the final few days so her sweet emaciated self could keep some food down. She also invented a few pretty cool activities for sick kids as she began to perk up– twisting aluminum foil into sculptures once, and another time asking me to gather interesting things from around the yard in a jar for her to look at and play with.

The hardest part, though, was the emotional toll. One minute my heart would break for Ronan weeping through a painful session of vomiting or Abi asking for a piece of bread and then just staring at it tearfully. The next minute I would look at all my miserable children and mentally beg them to JUST STOP. Stop trying to climb up my legs while simultaneously trying to press down on your brother’s head to keep him from succeeding at the same task. Stop leaking explosive diarrhea out the legs of your shorts while I am filling your sippy cups with yet another flavor of fake Pedialyte. Stop crying at the same time. Stop chanting “I need you, I need you, I need you,” in that weak, piteous little voice, Callum. Oh, now my heart is broken again. Yes, I will pick you up.

Which brings me to the guilt. My standard of care for sick children was set by Abi. Whenever she got sick as a baby and toddler, I would hold her pretty much the entire time she was awake. That was what she wanted, and what better thing did I have to do? When her brothers came along that was no longer possible for her or any of them, but in general, my M.O. is to give the neediest child the most attention. The sick child gets picked up the oftenest, and the other two are able to go with it. And while I sometimes struggle with feelings of inadequacy about that, it is NOTHING compared to staring at three wan, tear-streaked faces at once– each with that desperate look that conveys feeling shaky and nauseous and crampy and clammy and wanting Mommy to cuddle and cuddle and cuddle–knowing you can give none of them as much comfort as they desire. Once in a while I resorted to setting the timer to designate when it would be the next child’s turn to be walked around in my arms.

And then there was one night when I was only awakened once; and a day with no leaky diapers and the children suddenly putting their food into their mouths instead of their pockets or the creases in their chairs; and the craziness of newly energetic kids who have been in the house far too long; and it was over. Relief, relief, relief. Callum immediately went back to working on being funny (like trying to climb out of the bathtub on the wall side– “Bye bye, mommy!” “Where are you going?” “Preschool!”) and Ronan learned how to say “mechanic” with perfect clarity and got busy “repairing” everything in the house; and Abi became obsessed with doing science experiments in the freezer (at the moment there is some plastic Easter grass in there because… well, who knows what the point is. But it is in there). There were no hard feelings, and life was no longer miserably messy but beautifully messy, just the way we like it.

We’ve had some moderately ill wee ones around the house for the past few days. That plus the combination of their mama’s severe seasonal allergies and severely interrupted sleep make it a constant temptation to just turn on the TV and let them veg out. We do watch some TV, but I don’t want it to be on for hours during the day. Ronan barely tolerates TV anyway. So what to do? Can’t go out; too energetic to sleep; too blech to run around or do things that require serious attention span; a whole day to fill. Here are some easy things we have come up with for sick days. What easy, easy stuff do you do? I’d love to expand my list of ideas.

Toy Rotation.

I keep a big box of extra toys in the garage and when the kids get really cranky, I swap out some too-familiar ones for some from the garage.

Baths.
Foam shapes in the bathtub
My kids have sensitive skin and live in a dry climate, so I normally try to limit bath time. But I justify extra baths on sick days by not including any soap or shampoo. We try to make baths extra special by forgoing regular bath toys for novel ones:

lights out, glow sticks in the water
dozens of washcloths
cups and bottles
foam shapes to stick on the walls– you can buy big stacks of these at Michael’s
squeeze bottles (the tall white cylinders that usually contain salad dressing or mustard)

Balloons.

I keep a bag of balloons around and only break it out once in awhile. We do all the regular balloon stuff plus rockets, static electricity, and balloon decorating. The kids loved peeling a sheet full of stickers to add to their balloons. Sometimes I hide stuff in the balloons and the kids have to figure out how to pop them to get the stuff out.

Paint with Water.

I took the kids outside and filled their water table. Then I threw in a few watercolor lozenges that I had popped out of those cheap water-color sets that come with their own closing lid and a paintbrush. It was just enough to tint the water, not enough to actually stain anything. I gave the kids adult house paintbrushes and let them mix the colors, then paint on the walls and doors of the house. They also painted many of their toys, the patio, some rocks, and sand. The only bad part was that the toddlers wanted to suck on the paintbrushes.

Tools.

This requires more close supervision than I always have the energy for, but once in awhile I will break out a measuring tape, a wrench, and a screwdriver and let the kids take turns measuring and fixing things in one area of the backyard. They especially love to work on trikes and scooters.

Play in the Car.

No explanation needed.

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