The crush of young kids
I used to read a magazine designed to help mothers of large families with the typical problems they faced in a day: how to get a toddler into shoes that needed to be tied while a baby crawled over spilled syrup in clean clothes and ants marched in a beeline (ha!) for the last crumb of pancake on the floor while the older two children hunted through the 600 square foot apartment for their math books…again. And, of course, this very common scenario always included an 8 month pregnant belly. The solutions to these ordinary life problems varied from “get shoes without laces” (I did that so well in southern California, my oldest daughter didn’t learn to tie her own shoes until, I kid you not, 10th grade) to never eating pancakes. Having fewer babies? Never floated as a viable option.
My life with five kids has been busy and crazy and messy and disorganized and noisy like that. I’ve noticed that people who have two kids? Their lives are busy and crazy and messy and disorganized too…at least at times. No matter how many kids you have, they fill up your world, taking it over, hijacking its order, demanding your total absorption. There’s no recipe for child-rearing that creates both control and energy. Seems that depletion is part of the gig, no matter whether you follow a schedule or live life without a clock.
I’m suddenly aware that my life has shifted gears. My youngest is turning 13 in the fall (UPDATE: this was written in ’09–she’s now in college!). When I get up at 9:00 in the morning (!), I’m the first one awake and the kitchen is shockingly tidy. I can hear the wind, birds, and cars that drive by. (I’m pretty sure I forgot what those sounded like for about a decade.) The quiet is more distracting than the TV in the background, that’s how good I got at tuning it out so I could work and be in the same room with the kids.
And yes, teens and kids who come home from college generate plenty of sound and mess and energy. But not at 9:00 a.m. And I’m not in charge of it in the same ways any more. They really will hop up and empty the whole dishwasher and then load it just because they know it would help me. They really do know how to clean toilets and tie their own shoes (in time for college) and stir fry their own vegan dinners.
In that magazine I told you about, one young mother with five kids under 7 asked for advice about how to keep the house reasonably tidy. She just wanted to know: Can a mother of five little kids have that satisfying feeling of things being put away and the film of dust and grime wiped down and the laundry folded and in drawers and the children bathed and pajama’ed…all at once, ever, while they still live at home? The answer came from a mother of eight. Her response: “It gets better.” She spent an entire column describing how well her older children helped her run the family. No advice for the mom with all little kids under 7.
I was appalled. No help whatsoever. Only, I didn’t forget her words all these years later. Because each time I got overwhelmed with the chaos of my overly full life, my mind would wander back to the best advice a mother of eight could drum up, even with time and preparation to write an article. The truth: she HAD NO ADVICE. There is no answer. If you have kids under 7 or 8, you will not have a neat house, clean clothes, bathed babies, tied shoes, ant-free kitchens, enough food in the fridge, and easy-to-find homeschool materials all at once, most days. That’s how it is. That’s what normal and routine and, dare I say it, right living look like when you’re solely in charge of nurturing, caring for and cleaning the worlds of small children.
But over time, almost imperceptibly, things do change. Eventually, you won’t be pregnant any more. You really won’t. The older kids do remember their own dental appointments (eventually). Some of them will drive cars and help you with soccer practice runs for the younger kids. One of your children will clean your whole kitchen one night just to surprise you in the morning. Their bedrooms may never match the photos in Pottery Barn’s catalog, but they will be able to do a five minute sweep of the living room before company comes and make it look presentable again.
In the meantime, what I want to say this morning in my deathly quiet house is: enjoy (play with, admire, tickle, feed, cuddle, praise, forgive) your little ones as much as you can, while you can, in spite of the exhaustion. I did, honestly, know to do that. And I don’t regret it for a moment.
In fact, today? I miss it.