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.

So I measured the circumference of the kids’ thighs the other day. Yeah, this is how I entertain myself sometimes. Don’t judge me. In order, from thickest to thinnest: Ronan, Abi, Callum. Our Ronan is a sturdy little fellow. I remarked to Dr. G. as I struggled to cram Ronan’s bottom into some jeans that I am not used to kids outgrowing clothes at the waist. Abi still fits into some of her 2T pajama shorts, after all. I’m also pretty unclear on what constitutes normal physical development for 20-month-olds, as Abi has always been supremely uninterested in anything sporty other than gymnastics– if there is any kicking, throwing or catching of balls going on, she just wanders away (unless it is her invented game, Sorryball, in which you swat the ball in any direction, yell “sorry!” and both go chasing it). Running, she still looked much like a Muppet at that age. I remember taking her to toddler story time at the library and her being the only one present (of about 15) who would not or could not jump along with a song. She has really only become proficient at somersaults since she joined gymnastics.

All this to say that both of my boys strike me as marvelously coordinated, though perhaps they are simply normal for their age. They get giggly and hop around the house for fun. Callum spins until he gets dizzy and falls. Ronan loves to hold a ball and see how many times he can bobble it in his arms before it drops. Callum likes to try to keep a balloon in the air and can sometimes hit or catch it three times in a row. The other day I watched him hop the length of his crib without holding on to the rail, and when I took him out, he turned two perfect somersaults on the floor. When I voiced my happy astonishment, Ronan tried it, too. His method was to put his head on the floor and then flop over onto his side. I voiced my happy astonishment again.

Ronan is the family member who consistently gets me laughing really hard. When he can’t keep up with his brother’s accomplishments, he just switches to silliness, making faces, waggling his bottom, jutting out his jaw and squishing his nose into my cheek. He has settled pretty firmly into the role of youngest family member, though technically he is about a minute older than his brother. He copies Callum’s words and actions while Callum copies Abi’s. Abi copies the host of the cooking show Weelicious.com, so there is a lot of pretend mixing up smoothies and batches of cookies when they all play playdough together. Ronan is also developing a strong chest push as a defense against Callum’s wrestling moves, and when he succeeds, I hear a wail from Callum and a proud report from Ronan: “Push!” I give him the disapproving eye and he leans his head contritely toward Callum’s shoulder. “Sawyee.” But it’s an arms race. Callum is nothing if not ambitious. He practices and practices and practices anything he wants to learn, whether it is the “R” sound or some game of Abi’s or making his new toddler scooter go. He just persists and persists until he masters it; it is wonderful to observe his tolerance for failure.

Now, if only a)Abi would stop coming out of her room an hour after bedtime complaining of “her worst thought ever” and b)the boys would stop waking at 4:30 am and c)if they MUST wake up then, go back to sleep significantly more often than 50% of the time; and d)Callum would stop tantruming through lunchtime several times a week (he’s overtired by then, but family schedule doesn’t allow an earlier nap) and e)everyone would stop falling down so much, we’d be on a roll. We are currently trying to move the boys to a later bedtime (should help with wakeups and the required late nap?) and getting Abi back in the rhythm of putting herself to sleep more quickly. But man, it feels like there are precious few hours available where no one is trying to steal my food or destroy my stuff or push me out of the way so they can take over my activity. Today I was up on a stepladder pruning a Vitex tree and Callum kept climbing up after me shouting, “MY turn! MY turn!” This with shaving cream in the water table AND the hose turned on AND his entire family there to play with. Like I said, on a roll. I console myself with the knowledge that I am allowed to measure his thighs whenever I darn well please.

I use “Worst Day Ever” somewhat facetiously. No one’s life was threatened, nothing was permanently destroyed, nothing required expensive repairs. Nothing happened that couldn’t be solved by disinfectant spray, paper towels, spot remover, leather cleaner, floor cleaner, steam cleaner, old towels, two baths, two loads of laundry, a closet auger, and a good night’s sleep. You see what I mean about the worst day ever.

Tuesday morning. I had a big pile of baby clothes out on the living room rug, gradually sorting them for a friend who is expecting twins. Remember that sweet, pristine pile of onesies and footie pjs; it comes back into the story later. As usual, I put Callum and Ronan into their cribs with some books and toys while I went to shower. As usual, Ronan disrobed and peed all over his sheet. It was pretty drenched. He did not want to get dressed right away, so I wiped him down and let him run around au naturel while I changed the sheets, found him some clean clothes and put together a snack. I figured he had peed so much in his crib that he wouldn’t have any more for the next 10 minutes. Crucial error #1: I forgot that he hadn’t yet had his morning bowel movement. I was in the kitchen filling his snack cup with pretzels and raisins when he called for my help. “Mom! Hard!” He was standing next to a giant pile of poop with one poop-slicked foot in the air that he was afraid to put back down on the ground. Callum was leaning interestedly over the pile.

“DON’T TOUCH. DON’T MOVE.” There was poop on the laminate flooring and the rug. Crucial error #2: I decided the most important thing to do was to clean up most of the poop before the boys got into it and then give Ronan a bath. I used a nearby cloth diaper to wipe down the poopy foot and scoop up most of the mess. I got out a disinfectant and a carpet spot cleaner to finish up. Then I went back to the kitchen to put away the cleaners and text my friend that I couldn’t meet her at the park in 10 minutes as we’d planned, due to POOP EMERGENCY. Callum wandered in, a hand and a foot caked with feces and more smeared on his pajamas. Oh crap! Literally! Where did that come from?

I picked up Callum by the cleanest parts and went back to the living room, where I saw Ronan standing in the middle of the baby clothes, a few more little fragrant piles of poop gracing the tiny, adorable T-shirts at his feet. He was smeared, too. GAH! I stripped Callum and plopped him in the empty tub; raced back for Ronan; turned on the water but left the plug open; raced back for the cloth diaper and the pile of poopy baby clothes. I let the boys splash around and rinse off while I was dunking and shaking everything in the toilet. The boys decided the water was too hot (it wasn’t) and started swinging their legs over the side of the tub to escape. They were VERY interested in my toilet activities. I had to act fast. I flushed the toilet, dropped the diaper I was rinsing, and turned to do a double body-block on the boys. It was a truly awesome feat, in which I managed to wrestle two wet, athletic, poop-flecked boys back into the tub without touching them with my toilet-water hands or getting more poop on myself. The boys were just as amazed as I was. I agreed to make the water cooler and plug the tub if they would just stay in there.

Now, where was that nasty diaper? Not on the toilet, not on the floor, not on the counter. Uh-oh. Test flush. Yup. I’d flushed it. Couldn’t see it to pull it out, even. Double crap! Make that triple crap– Ronan had taken yet another dump in the tub. How backed up could that boy’s intestine be? Surely he had emptied it by now? Drain, scoop, rinse, refill. Now what? um, plunger? I plunged the toilet and immediately realized that I was only making the situation worse. I had lost count of my number of crucial errors. The boys were shivering. I sudsed them up and rinsed them and dressed them, with Ronan only escaping once to play with the plunger. They had fun examining the steam cleaner as I dragged it in and filled it and cleaned the rug. Callum only got the bottle of carpet cleaner off the counter once while I was emptying the waste tank into the sink. End of disasters for one day. We could all laugh about it now, HA HA! I cheerfully regaled the line of parents waiting outside the preschool room with my tale of woe. But no. There was more to come.

We all made it basically clean and sane to bedtime. I was out in the laundry room digging through the clean laundry for pjs. We never seem to have enough pjs. The boys, Callum in particular, have gotten very picky about their sleeping attire and everything must match and fit just so, so it took awhile to assemble two acceptable sets. Also, I was texting my sister about the poop, my daily attempt at multi-tasking. Crucial error number one million. When I got inside, Callum was leaning against the couch nonchalantly drinking a bottle of sesame oil. Next to him was a nearly-empty 48oz bottle of canola oil, lid off, tipped on its side. It had been nearly full five minutes ago. The leather couch gleamed in the light of the torchiere, a puddle of golden oil running over the sides of the cushion down into every crevice and onto the floor. Surprise! Guess who was finally tall enough to reach the shelf of liquids in the pantry!

I grabbed the two bottles and started doing one of those horrible hysterical hyena laughs. Where was Dr. G? Why hadn’t he been supervising? He was busy examining and comforting Ronan, who had somehow sprained his foot while practicing jumping up and down on the carpet in his bedroom. Flat, unobstructed, cushiony floor; jumps that barely clear the ground; how could it have happened? No idea. But Ronan couldn’t put any weight on the foot and kept muttering “Hurts, hurts.” Dr. G. was absorbed in trying to decide if he should take him to Urgent Care or wait and see how it was in the morning. He decided it was a sprained toe, and that he should just carry Ronan around until he could be put to bed for the night. Poor possum!

Meanwhile I handed Callum some paper towels and told him to clean himself up, already! I took the rest of the roll and started soaking up the pool on the couch. No matter how much I soaked and scrubbed, the leather just stayed slimy and shiny. I tried to think of it as extra conditioning. I threw an old towel over the oily cushions and another old towel underneath where it was leaking through. Dr. G and I put all the kids to bed, Callum’s slightly oily hands notwithstanding. I told him it was just like lotion. He liked that idea. Then I got out all the appropriate cleaners and wiped and scrubbed while Dr. G. went out to Home Depot for some kind of snake or auger for the toilet. I jammed that thing as far as it would go and twisted it around some. Pop! The diaper came out. Hooray! The internet had been ominously intimating that I would have to take off the whole toilet to get it out. That would mean a call of shame to a plumber. In college I was once ridiculed by a plumber because I tried to dispose of hot candle-making wax by dumping it down the sink. Since then I’ve been afraid of plumbers. Clean the tub, clean the toilet, look with glum defeat at the full laundry basket of oily clothes, quit. The worst. day. ever. And now I have stayed up too late. Crucial error number one million and one. Thank God there will never be another day exactly like this one.

ADDENDUM, Wednesday morning: Ronan is still limping a little but is getting progressively better as the morning wears on. I’m taking him to the doc this morning just to make sure.

My heart is a little bit broken for Abigail. A few weeks ago, her best and only preschool friend, E, dumped her. Now whenever Abi invites E to play, E refuses and runs away. E is simply growing socially and wants to branch out with other games and other children. Abi is not in the same place. Whenever I arrive a few minutes early to pick her up, I see Abi wandering sadly and alone among the groups of happy children on the playground, like a tiny Jane Eyre upon the moors. Her teachers encourage her to join in with others, but she will have none of it. She wants only E.

This week when we were leaving, Abi realized some fake flowers she’d had in her hair were missing. A teacher told her E had found them on playground and had put them in her bag as treasures. The levels of betrayal in this admission were too much for Abigail, and she dropped to the floor in the lobby, screaming. She hates to make a scene at preschool but this called for it. Hunting for treasures on the playground– marbles, sequins, barrettes– had been THEIR special activity they had always done together. And now E had done it on her own. And, if she had been paying any attention to Abi at all, she would have known right away who those flowers belonged to. “THOSE ARE MY FLOWERS! THEY ARE NOT A TREASURE!” screamed Abi, sobbing and flailing. We were able to flag down E’s dad before he left the parking lot and get the flowers back. I had to stop Abi from screaming into the car at E and got her to scream “THANK YOU — AND THOSE ARE MY FLOWERS!” instead. Baby steps. When she was buckled into her car seat she methodically ripped the flowers to bits. She did not want them after all.

“I don’t think E wants to be my best friend anymore,” Abi confided to me the next day, eyes full of tears. I held her tight and told her I was so sorry to hear it, and that maybe E will change her mind someday. In the meantime, why not try playing with some other kids? I went down a list of names of friendly children her teachers had recommended, and she rejected each one in turn before settling on R, the girl she had originally thought would be her best friend before E came on the scene. Her plan of action? To climb to the highest spot on the playground so she could watch R from a distance and see who she played with and what she did. Well. Hum. It’s a start, anyway.

This social crisis has occurred just as we are trying to figure out where to place Abi for kindergarten next year. I had had fond hopes of letting her ride the bus to our neighborhood school, but after talking to other parents about the poor communication and unruly environment there and finding the sole teacher’s website rife with simple spelling errors, that is out. And suddenly I am engulfed with worry that she will do her Jane-Eyre-Upon-the-Moors impression the whole year and never interact with anyone or participate in group activities and be silently miserable at her little shared table. The decision of a kindergarten environment feels suddenly extra weighted, extra fraught, though really it is just kindergarten and we can move her or remove her if it is not working out. In the abstract I think it is 100% ok for a person to only want one or two good friends at a time (though it is especially painful when things don’t work out) and to prefer very small groups to larger ones. In the particular, I hope this trait does not work against Abi as she adjusts to a school environment. If her flowers fall from her hair I hope the child who finds them will carry them straight back to my sweet, loyal girl.

The littles have entered a Frolicking Season. All three regularly play together now, a miracle both so slow and so fast in coming that when it happens, I drop what I’m doing to enjoy the moment. If Dr. G is around, he does the same; we stand together at the entrance of the hallway, smiling benevolently as the children race up and down squealing. For some reason most of their shared activities involve the hallway and the boys’ bedroom. They love to rush down the hall in a pack and slam the door and ricochet around their room in the dark. Abi leads her brothers in games in which they dump bins of bouncy balls in the hall and throw them around, or in which they each get something to push (riding toy, doll stroller, laundry basket) and stage mighty crashes. They especially enjoy crowding behind the bedroom curtain (well, clipped-on sheet, but who’s checking?) and sitting silently with their feet sticking out until someone gets the shrieks or the giggles. The boys love throwing objects in their cribs back and forth and having jumping-on-the-bed marathons. If they can be naked while doing any of this, they become especially frolicsome.

I get a buzz from it, actually. A big part of it is the sudden, freeing knowledge that, for five or ten minutes, NONE OF MY KIDS NEEDS ME! But there’s another part, too– the realization that this raising kids thing is starting to work. My job is to socialize them into non-sociopaths, and look! Here they are, being social! Little as they are, they are getting the hang of being in a family. All three fully understand the idea of taking turns. If Ronan has a toy that Callum wants, he will come to me and ask, “Turn? Turn? Take it?” about half the time. The other half of the time, he will just grab it, or if Ronan is hanging on too tightly, grab Ronan by the neck and throw him to the floor. I can’t leave them unattended in their playpen anymore because Callum enjoys throwing Ronan down far too much. Ronan would reciprocate, but Callum has gotten much larger and heavier recently and there is just no way. The best he can do is try to get a handful of hair, as long as Callum is not sitting on his head. I watch them closely enough that Ronan only gets tackled about once a day. But they play together, too!

It’s nice to have the frolicking because the boys have recently emerged from a period of very high anxiety, which I guess preceded a big growth spurt and developmental burst for both of them. The other day Ronan sat at the table working on a collage art project for an HOUR. Just a few weeks ago, he was so clingy that he cried all day several days in a row if I was not holding him. Sometimes his anxiety overtook him to the point that he would say nothing but “Mom, mom, mom.” Pointing to a toy.. mom, mom, mom. Pointing to the snack shelf in the pantry… mom, mom, mom. Obsess much, Ronan? And Callum would frantically search for his monkey, a blankie/stuffed animal that is his security object. “Monkey, Monkey, Monkey! Where goed it? Monkey!” Every two minutes day in and day out, even if, as often happened, he had it in his hand. And he had huge pacifier tantrums, though he knows that the pacifier is only for sleeping and the car.

Abi has made big strides in going with the flow in family life. She no longer expects the boys to follow her elaborate game instructions exactly; she has a great time if they just get the basic idea and don’t wreck too much stuff. She revels in her power over Callum. At dinner she loves to make him say silly things. “Say hot truck, Callum.” “Hot Twuck.” Say, “Hot water.” “Hot water!” Say, “Hot mommy!” “HOT MOMMY!”

Abi and I have finally gotten most of the garden in. She tried hoeing with me one day and after about 45 seconds she decided it was too hard. But she has pitched in 15 to 30 minutes here and there over the course of many hours of work. My garden work annoyed the boys no end– why was I going to play in the mud and they could not? Why was I putting up a fence so they couldn’t get in? Why would I not pick them up? And I had a lot of whys myself, as I duct-taped a garden hose along the porch roof and staked it down along the fence so it would reach the garden and I could attach a drip system (we are renting our house so I prefer gerry-rigging to installing permanent plumbing), as I hoed and hoed, as I made another trip to Home Depot, as i taped up another blister or scrape. Garden work was slowly completed with many efforts to be mindful and thankful, interspersed with hissing under my breath. Though it was my project and any injustice was my own. But now we have carrots, onions, flowers, beets, chard, and tomatoes planted. Some more tomato seedlings, wildflowers, and basil await their turn another week or two. It is such a relief to look out the window at each damp, labeled square and think, “DONE!”

It’s technically possible that we could have a happy, fulfilled life without empty boxes, but it’s hard to see how. At the very least there would be much more snot and tears (mine included). Our diapers are shipped to us, along with many of our other purchases, so there is nearly always virgin cardboard around waiting to be converted into some kind of toy.

We bent the huge box that housed the sandbox into a vertical cylinder and cut a door in it. It was Abi’s spaceship for months, until rain destroyed it. The next box that arrives is pre-designated to become a Mystery Box, to be decorated by Abi, and to be filled with strange objects by me. She will stick her hand through a covered hole to feel them and guess what they are.

Here are some other fun things we do with boxes.

Sit in it.

Turn it into a stalactite cave. This picture is from imagination tree (click on the green words to see the site), but we followed her instructions to the T for our own box. We did it when the boys were proficient crawlers and scooters. Super fun.
box cave

Use it as an Outdoor Activity Table.

Art Box. This is our best box ever. We colored it with markers one day, and then several weeks later (after using it as a bridge and for hide and seek), we painted it with sparkly paint.

Then a week later, we reinforced it with duct tape and turned it into a Grass Sled.

This week it became a Dance Party Stage.

Abi and her dad used a piece of box to make a Chutes-and-Ladders Type Game. The rules: Roll the dice. Before you can move, another player tells you something silly you have to do. If you don’t do it, you miss your turn.

Beanbag Toss Game. This went quickly from beanbag toss, to dinosaur toss, to puppet peekaboo, to reading cubby.

O boxes! How we love them all.

The thing about mothering three little kids is that approximately 15 seconds after I think to myself, “Hey, we’re in a pretty good rhythm here. I’m doing this mom thing! I’m gittin’ er done! Giddyap, little cow-kids!” the rhythm is completely disrupted. If everyone stays well for long stretches and there are no illnesses or emergencies or projects or events, then we do fine. The toilet doesn’t get scummy, there are no McDonald’s trips, I catch up on my email, all the calves are roped and tagged. But add some vomit or a string of visitors or a major holiday or a road trip or all of the above, and it’s over. This month is going to be all about digging us out of the hole we descended further and further into over the course of November and December. Most of our experiences were wonderful ones with family, including a Thanksgiving with Gary’s parents and Christmas with mine, plus four other kids and a horde of aunts and uncles, several of whom pointed out that while Callum initially seems to be the most friendly with his beaming smiles and racing around, it is actually Ronan who will sneak up to hug your knee or make silly faces. And in our private family Christmas celebration before we traveled, it was lovely to help our kids empty their stockings and see their little bodies wiggle with joy over plastic slinkies or Hello Kitty tattoos.

But. I still need to paint over the bathroom door where I somehow splattered it with hair dye back in October (I started dyeing it soon after Abi was born when I looked at some photos and thought I looked way too old to have a little baby), and take down the Christmas decorations, and sell some furniture and buy some different furniture with the money, and plant a garden, and so on. I feel that, since virtually all I do is housekeeping and mothering, I should be able to get more of this stuff done. Other people seem to get a lot more of it done. But, as the facts of the case show, for reasons of constitution and fate, I can’t. Well, the garden is optional. But I happen to have a daughter who disdains cheater gardens (ie, 12″ basil plant from Home Depot) and loves real ones and persuaded me to spend the last six months composting. And I have fancy heirloom seeds that I got over-excited about purchasing during the summer. Beets, chard, carrots, tomatoes. And we are reading the Secret Garden right now, so I don’t see any way to weasel out of it. We get a little more ambitious each year. It’s getting to where I somewhat enjoy gardening. I like to check up on the Soldier Fly larvae writhing through my compost bin. I like to lay out where we will scatter wildflower seeds and where we will start our beets and onions. I like to win battles against mites and birds and I feel personally affronted when I lose.

Speaking of affronts, sweet Callum has become a bit of a tattletale. He will tell on himself just as quickly as anyone else. At my parents’ house, the most coveted toy among the toddler set was a mini basketball. There are a few older boys and then a stair-step of kids with summer birthdays: 4.5, 3.5, 2.5, and 1.5. Those ones tended to ping-pong off of each other, sometimes playing together, sometimes causing tears. The 2.5 year old finally got ahold of the ball and was beaming with joy when Callum swooped past on the run and scooped it straight out of his arms. Liam started wailing. Callum ran straight to the nearest mom (incidentally, the wrong one). “Ball,” he explained. “Take it.” He gave her the ball and raced off somewhere else, having set the record straight. Ronan would have given the ball back to Liam. Callum preferred to inform an adult. Today Callum saw Ronan making his usual sneak attempt over to the TV to turn it on. “Ronan touch it!” he told me urgently. I think more than trying to get anyone in trouble, he loves to explain what is going on in every situation. He is always telling me that he is cookin’ or readin book or poopin. After i had Abi, who was so verbal so early on, I tried to mentally prepare myself for toddlers who could not communicate in complete sentences at 20 months. They would be boys and twins and second and third children, three strikes against them in the verbal development department. But it seems that Callum is neck-and-neck with Abi developmentally after all. He even puts together the occasional sentence, as when he discovered a new toy on the shelf: “Oh, cool! I will do it!” He’s devoted to Richard Scarry books at the moment and will sit for 20 minutes looking at one, if someone is there to explain all the pictures. Of course, there is almost never 20 minutes available to look at Richard Scarry books, so he has a lot of tantrums. His are really loud. If I didn’t know him I’d think he was being eaten alive by ants.

Ronan talks a lot too, but he is difficult to understand. Many of his words sound remarkably similar to “bap” and deciphering them is all context. Mulk means milk or look or walk. One day he got so frustrated that I couldn’t understand him that he threw a tantrum that sent him rolling from the kitchen and through the living room until he crashed into the sofa. He uses a lot of sign language, some of which he made up, some of which I taught him, and some of which he got from Signing Times videos, which, with terrible lack of foresight, I haven’t been watching with him, so I don’t know what the signs mean. Sometimes I can get Abi to interpret, sometimes I fake it. He has also become a master at swiping my phone. He will ask me to pick him up, snuggle in close, lean way over, and pickpocket it without my noticing until he waves it in my face, crowing with glee. He will drag chairs over to a counter to gain access. He will climb on top of the table. He will wait until I get up from somewhere to see if it has slipped out of a pocket or been left behind. And, if the phone is not locked, he has figured out how to start apps. He is a persistent, sneaky little imp and I love his chubby face. On our road trip, as I stared at him from the third row of the for 13 hrs over two days (twice), feeding him and his siblings a constant stream of books, toys, snacks, drinks, videos, and songs, I learned that he loves to make me laugh. And he is really funny, making silly faces and silly hats and wiggling around like a monkey. Not so funny, though, that I didn’t start feeling an almost panicky desire to escape whenever we stopped the van and I had to wait for Abi to struggle into her shoes and sweatshirt before I myself could get out. “Here’s your shoe, here’s your shoe!” All my children are good travelers, to California and, I hope, through life. I am fantasizing toting them off on an international adventure once they’ve all outgrown their dairy intolerance. And once we get way more money, and get that door painted, and sell the entryway table, and sow our carrots and chard. We’re doing it. We’re totally doing it. Someday. Giddyap!

As the boys get older they have an increased ability to both delight and exasperate me. Abi is happy that she is no longer the only one in the family capable of annoying me– the boys are not innocents anymore and thus can fail to meet my expectations. But I can’t completely predict when misbehavior will make me want to laugh or when it will make me want to speak sharply and move with fast impatience. So I’m working on being consistent in my responses to their behavior apart from my emotions. I am good about providing the same consequences for the same actions, but the variable intensity of my response confuses the kids. Those who are closest to me know that I am not good at hiding my feelings and that I get annoyed kind of easily, though it is a shallow annoyance that passes quickly and leaves no trace in my heart. Still, I know that its even its briefest expression can hurt the feelings of a child. Ah, emotional consistency: hardest thing in parenting to date? One of the most important things in parenting? It’s a hard line to walk with my kids:being a real person, faults and all, while still providing the stable warmth they crave.

The kids now gang up against me. That’s actually one of the reasons I wanted Abi to have siblings: so she could could have someone to plot with as a child, and someone to call up and have can-you-believe-mom conversations when she is an adult. Now I’m seeing the years of scheming stretching ahead and wondering if it was the best idea. One day I told Callum to give me his pacifier. He was reluctantly complying when Abi rushed to his aid. His slow-moving hand had finally reached his mouth and was actually on the pacifier when she pulled it down and shouted, “Run, Callum, run!” He did. I made the mistake of laughing and then it was all over– they were screeching and dodging and refusing to respond at all. I had to do my best toddler chase-and-tackle, wrest away the pacifier and give timeouts. Another time Callum brought Ronan a stool and helped him climb up on it so that he could better reach my makeup bin from the back of the bathroom counter. They made it through two closed doors, one with a deterrent on the knob, for that victory. Dr. G. noted that although the boys don’t know much yet, they are very good at figuring things out. As is their sister.

Abi has devised a cute way of trying to glimpse what the adults are watching on TV after she is in bed. She knows that there is no talking or leaving the bedroom after the last kiss goodnight, except to use the bathroom. On the rare occasions that we sit down to watch some Malcom in the Middle, she will come to the end of the hall with her baby doll and water cup, asking us to guard them for her while she goes to the bathroom. Why? Because she has imagined scary things in the air and her stuff needs to be protected. Then she very slowly delivers the items, goes to the bathroom, and very slowly comes to retrieve them afterward. “Oh, that’s a pretty lady!” she comments about the paused image on the screen. She gets a smile in reply and goes to bed to imagine what might be going on on the TV.

Ronan is in a phase of testing, testing, testing. If his dad says, “Ronan, don’t hit your plate with the spoon. It’s too loud,” Ronan responds by gently tapping the plate as quietly as possible. If I say, “Don’t bonk your brother with that measuring cup,” he smacks his own head with it instead. “If I say, “Keep the water in the tub,” he balances two cups as close to the edge as he can and pours water back and forth, one eye on me all the time. We are learning to keep our corrections as specific as possible so he can’t find a workaround. His favorite joke right now is to act as if he wants to be taken from his crib but then flop down and roll to the farthest corner when I reach for him. So hilarious. If you have lived on the planet less than a year and a half.

Ronan is also a remarkably kind child. He is always assessing his family members, and when they show signs of trouble he is there to help (as long as the trouble is not caused by him). If someone is going out, he brings that person’s shoes and bag. If Abi is crying in a timeout, he can’t resist leaning on her leg to comfort her. If anyone is hugging or wrestling, he is right there in the mix. If he does something mean, he will often become contrite and hug the person he’s hurt without even being asked. He knows his sibling’s favorite toys and books and will deliver them when he comes across them. He loves order and points out any cupboard or door that is ajar; “Uh-oh!” he says, and rushes to remedy the problem. My little fixer.

Callum has figured out that if he wants to play with a cool toy, he should try to have an extra on hand so Ronan doesn’t steal it from him. He will bring an extra teddy bear, drop it in Ronan’s lap, and say in a sweet little voice, “Thank you!” before he goes off to play with his own bear. He surprises me all the time with the things he says and the things he tries. One of his current projects is climbing on a step stool, saying “Up! Tall! Hop!” and then hopping down, over and over. His imagination is also taking flight. At lunch recently he turned a bowl upside down, balanced his cup on it, and said it was a Dino. “Roar! Roar!” he said, waggling the cup like it was a dinosaur head. Unfortunately he loves to help me sweep. His way of sweeping is to wait until I get a nice pile and then take another broom and spread it all around as much as possible while I pretend that he is doing a good job until I can’t take it anymore and pick him up, broom and all, and dump him in another room. “He’s the worst sweeper in the world!” says Abi. “One of two,” I correct, looking meaningfully in Ronan’s direction. Good thing they are all so cute, my little boundary-testing, teamwork-loving, fun-loving, mischief-makers.

Somehow over the past few months my sweet energetic babies have been replaced by delightful, rascally toddlers. They’ve gotten enough coordination and attention span that the back yard is a pleasant activity rather than a purgatory of heat and near-misses. They sport their size 2T tshirts and size 7 sneakers like real little boys. They brush their teeth and wash their faces and follow simple instructions. How did this happen? I watched Abi so closely when she was little that every physical and developmental change was immediately noted and examined. I feel like I miss half of it with the boys, getting surprised by Ronan successfully guzzling an open cup of water or Callum managing an actual jump. We were at a petting zoo yesterday and Ronan put his face through the bars of the cow pen and started yelling MOOOO! I had no idea he knew a) what a cow looked like or b) what sound it made. While I processed this new information, he narrowly escaped a very wet, slimy nuzzle.

A few weeks ago I left the kids for two nights for a short trip to LA– my longest away from them ever. My sister, watching me hang up the phone sadly at their bedtime, wishing I could kiss them all goodnight, said that I was made to be a mother. I don’t know about that. On the most literal level I wasn’t, having had to go through many difficult medical treatments to have the darn kids in the first place. And my personality isn’t all that mothery either. Too low-energy, too task oriented. But having waited so long and tried so hard and sacrificed so much to have them has given me a special sense of gratitude for the time I get to share with them and watch them become themselves. Sometimes I really miss working, doing things that people outside of my house appreciate and respect and pay me money for. This semester Dr. G is on sabbatical and has enough time in his schedule so that he can watch the kids one morning a week while I go write. I sit in the coffee shop and type madly right up until the last moment I can reasonably make it to Abi’s preschool on time to pick her up. Then I think about it all day that day, and several times every other day of the week. I love reclaiming a tiny bit of my old self, even if it is just a few hours a week.

I have to find a way to keep that going next semester. What will I give up? Sleep? TV, book reading, shopping, and surfing the net are already mostly off the radar. The babysitter’s visits I use for appointments and errands and cleaning projects and naps and complicated outings with all three kids. Maybe I still can’t reclaim that little part of myself permanently. Maybe I will have to wait until the boys are even older. And that will be okay, because it is a gift to watch my three children become more fully themselves. Abi is full of passion and loyalty for her new best friend at school, a sweet, long-haired, blue eyed girl who doesn’t talk much and whom I think gets overwhelmed by the affection of our Abi. Abi doesn’t understand why everyone doesn’t love her the way she loves them. Callum broke her heart the other day by knocking her flat when she tried to join him playing with the dollhouse. He broke it again when he knocked her flat again for the same reason three minutes later. Callum doesn’t like it when people interrupt his plan for how he wants to play with something.

He has elaborate imaginative play now. At the play kitchen he will find some preferably real food (plastic food is ok if no crackers or raisins are present) and pretend to cut it up, put it in a pan, turn on the stove, stir it, test it to see how hot it is, blow on it, and bring it over to a family member. “Dinner. Taste!” he says holding out the play serving spoon. He takes little figurines and has them speak to each other in high pitched voices as they prance along the top of the baby jail fence: “Doo doo doo. Hi! Hi! Oh no! Stuck!” He and Ronan love to play cars or balls together, vroom-vrooming or bouncing them everywhere. And he loves, loves, loves reading books. He is tired of his board books and strains to reach Abi’s picture books off the high shelf. I will tell him it is time for breakfast and he will say, “No. Read book.” He also says please and thank you most endearingly.

Ronan’s beautiful, kind heart makes me want to sweep him into my arms and smother him with kisses all day long. I posted on Facebook about how he brought Callum a pacifier and teddy bear the other day. This morning he one-upped himself in helping Callum recover from a fall. He hugged him once. No effect. Twice. No effect. Tousled his hair. No effect. Looked carefully into his sob-contorted face. “Eyes?” said Ronan. He used one finger to carefully wipe a tear. Then he brought Callum two sets of sunglasses to choose from. Callum stopped crying. When I was making Callum say sorry to Abi and give her a hug after pushing her down while he adamantly refused, Ronan stepped in to provide the hugs instead. What a love bug. Ronan is also the cutest little disobeyer you ever saw. He gets a twinkle in his eye and cocks and eyebrow and grins a delicious I’m-a-bad-boy-but-not-really grin. The other day I announced it was time to put the blocks in the bin so they didn’t hurt anyone’s feet by getting stepped on. Ronan got that twinkle and made it his mission to stand on the blocks we were trying to put away. Finally he gave up and just acceded to sitting on the blocks in the bin, self-satisfaction written all over him. Sitting is kinda his thing. He saw his sister wrestling me and zerberting me happily and wanted to join in. He got that twinkle in his eye and, ignoring my pleas for his help, slowly backed up toward my head and sat his chubby bottom right on my face. He couldn’t stop giggling about that one for awhile. Just for extra fun he stood up, adjusted position slightly, and did it again.

Am I really in charge of all these real, actual people? These three little people who all climb into my lap at once and lean their silky heads against me and hold up their books for me to read? As Callum would say, “mmmmm….. cuddles!”

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