Tonight was quite a night at the Zink house. When the school year begins, we move into High Intensity Parenting and it always takes me a few weeks to catch up. Or do I ever catch up? Maybe in June, right? ;) In the summer, I thrive as all of the parenting activities are spread out over the course of a leisurely day. Do a chore here, brush some teeth here, make your bed whenever. Usually if all of the "things" are done by the time I start making dinner and we've had some fun in between, I feel like we have totally rocked that day. But August-May, LOOK OUT. All parenting must be concentrated into super intense periods of time. Meteorologist Jen Zink reporting: There's a warning out for the "Getting Ready for School Tornado" M-F from 7-8:30 am, and then from 4-8 pm daily, be on the lookout for "Scattered Shitstorms."
Tonight the radar was mostly red from 5:45 pm onward. The end result was me wearing my apron for four hours straight before I finally made it to the sink to wash the spaghetti Wednesday aftermath, and the in-between was the best of times and the worst of times. THE MESS. Both literally and figuratively. But magic happened there. And that magic is the reason why I am sitting at my computer typing instead of curled up in the fetal position crying.
Sometimes I pray for things to be easy. "Let today be an easy day after school." I pray. "Why does the morning have to be like this?" I plead. But in this week of hectic, wiggly mornings and tearful yet exuberant evenings I have become aware. . .the crazy is the gift. The mess is where the magic happens. We have plenty of fun and peaceful and easy times to be sure, but the HARD parts are where we do the real work of life. I hate conflict, I avoid it at all costs. But conflict, and how we deal with it, is where we LEARN and GROW in this family. It is the biggest blessing we could have. I would love an easy morning, but an easy morning doesn't help me teach Daniel about time management. It doesn't help Phil to learn how to rise above challenges. It doesn't give me an opportunity to ask Josh for forgiveness for (gasp) HELPING HIM SET THE TABLE and give him the opportunity to extend it (update: I am half-forgiven for the table setting). It doesn't give us a huge belly laugh from Noah singing "Take it Easy" by the Eagles in the most crazy and least "easy" voice imaginable. It doesn't teach me to extend grace for spilled milk. It doesn't let me lead my family by example by admitting my own shortcomings if I oversleep or forget to run the dishwasher. Some days I would love to just hide in the kitchen and pretend to be making toast while I check my phone and the dining room explodes with little boy laughter about potty humor over their bowls of Bran Flakes and Cheerios. If I did that, though, I'd miss the chance to answer the million questions that pop up at breakfast about God and science and friendship and bullying and books and nutritional content of cereals.
By the time my kiddos get on the bus, I feel like have already taught a dozen lessons, a gift of the little obstacles of daily life. After they get off the bus at 4pm, the lessons begin anew. Someone might be crying in my arms from the moment they step into our front yard. Someone might pinch his brother, and then end up in a teary puddle explaining his feelings. Someone (ahem- his name starts with a D) might go completely boneless on the kitchen floor because of the possibility of writing out his spelling words. There's a highly volatile mix of little boy pent-up energy and I've been holding-it-all-together-exhaustion which can have my house fluctuating from joyful play to tears in the blink of an eye. In addition, meals have to be fed and cleaned, baths and showers given, teeth brushed, homework done, stories read. . .whew!! Tonight before dinner, Phil started crying because everyone was "ruining his pretend!! He was just trying to include them but they were RUINING IT!!!" Then at dinner, we were gifted with a two year old who decided not to take a nap today. He was crying so loudly about something related to his spaghetti that Phil started crying again because he "couldn't take one more second and just needed to be ALONE for a minute!" Josh was despondently poking at a meatball because spaghetti night is his least favorite, and Daniel had entered into his defense mechanism for all uncomfortable situations: clown mode Paul and I looked at each other in the same unspoken way that perhaps seasoned firefighters might as we just busted straight into that fiery mess. I prayed for wisdom. For patience for us. For a teachable moment in the whole thing.
So, as Paul gave some baths I got right into the thick of it with our oldest. It turns out Phil just isn't "feeling like himself." We talked about what that meant and what he might do about those feelings. Daniel was eavesdropping and started to chime in about his feelings, too. We talked about how Daniel was like Ferdinand the Bull in the story, with the flowers and the butterflies and all. Josh went downstairs to play, where I later found him asleep with a Lego clutched in his hand. Paul got the over-tired Noah to sleep with some Best Nest and a cup of milk, and I spent some time with my buddy Phil talking about what was going on inside that little noggin of his as he cried big giant tears and I wiped them with a Kleenex that Daniel brought us.
"Mommy, I just don't feel like me, I can't explain it." Phil said.
"Well, sweetie, I'm here. I'm here to listen."
"I feel like I just want to be by myself!!" he wailed. "I just want to go in my bed and not even brush my teeth and read a book."
"I totally understand! When I have a hard day reading one of my favorite books always really helps me. But, like, I always brush my teeth first. That's important." (seriously, kid has another cavity. gotta get that part in) ;)
"What books do you like to read, Mommy?"
"Well, one of my favorite books is called "I'm Proud of You" It's by my friend Tim. Do you know he was real life friends with Mister Rogers?"
"Really?" Phil's eyes got big and I could see that Daniel was listening intently from two beds away.
"Yes, real friends! They hung out and emailed and talked on the phone and everything!"
"Wow!" Phil said, as he waited for me to go on.
"So, Tim had a brother. His brother's name was Steve and they were really close, just like you and Daniel. But when his brother Steve was a grown-up, like your Daddy's age, he found out he had cancer. And later he died. And Tim was really sad just like you would be if you lost Daniel. But his friend Mister Rogers helped him through that sad time. And do you know what he said to him???"
"Anything mentionable is manageable. So if you can talk to Mommy about how you feel, I can help you with it, OK? You don't have to feel your feelings alone. If you tell me, I can try to help you."
So we sat together for a while, Phil and I. He totally stopped crying because once you start thinking about someone else's pain it's pretty hard to stay focused on your own. His mind was all wrapped up in Tim and Steve. He never did find the right words for his feelings, but we brushed teeth and read Stellaluna and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Tub People. By halfway through the first story he started to melt right into my arms on our comfy denim couch.
"Do you feel more like yourself, honey?" I asked, as we wrapped up Mike's adventures with Mary Ann in Popperville.
"Yes, mommy. Yes I do. That helped." And I started to melt, too. His little ash blonde head all cuddled under my chin, his big eyelashes, his even bigger heart.
See where the magic was in that mess? I would have missed that. If there wouldn't have been a hot mess of tears and conflict and boogers and spaghetti and silliness, I would have missed it all. The mess conspired for that moment. It was so worth the spaghetti-crusted dishes in my sink. As much as I love the easy days, the fun days, the no-strife days, the pizza nights, the lazy walks, the playground trips. . . I need these messy times, too. The crazy school mornings, the rollercoaster evenings. . .they teach us. They mold us. They're a gift to our family, even if they are about as fun and glamorous as a savings bond that you can't cash for years and years. But the investment is being made. And for that, I'm grateful.
As I corralled the kids through the early morning rush yesterday with Noah on my hip, Daniel was watching me from the bathroom with a toothbrush hanging out of his mouth and an inquisitive look on his face. "Mommy, how long are you going to carry Noah around like that?" he asked. "He's like half your size, you know."
My first thought was, "That's ridiculous! He's just a baby!" but then I realized Daniel did have a point. I mean, Noah is almost two and half and I trot him around my house in footie jammies with his paci and blankie like he's 10 months old. No shame. I hadn't even considered it. He's my baby because he's the youngest. Size be darned. And I pointed that out to Daniel. "Well, sweetie, Noah is like my LAST BABY. So, you know, maybe. . .for-eeeeee-veeeeeeer?"
Daniel laughed because he totally gets me. "Um, OK, Mommy," he said. "But you might want Daddy to take over. You are looking kind of ridiculous and people might think you are a crazy mommy."
"I will consider that, Daniel. Thanks for the feedback."
We laughed and crazy mommy scurried down the stairs with "baby" on hip to finish up the trio of lunches.
After the boys got on the bus, I was still running over all this in my head. I had to see for myself, so I went to the full length mirror with Noah on my hip to scope the situation out. I laughed out loud and Noah couldn't help but giggle, too. Daniel was so right. Noah is huge. His legs are so long they could wrap around me and his head is about the same size as mine. We do look like quite a pair with our brown eyes and blonde hair and goofy grins. But after having a baby on my hip (or two) for eight years straight, I'm just not quite ready to let go of this phase of my life. For one thing, I don't have a lot of time to sculpt my guns, so Noah really helps with that. And most importantly, I know there is a day I will put Noah down and never pick him back up and plop him on my hip to cook dinner or run into the store again. I'll never even notice it. . .the hip carry will just melt into history until one day I will be bouncing and rocking in the pew in church with no one in the crook of my arm playing with my hair. Hopefully I'll stop myself before people think I'm too crazy, but I am sure when I do I'll have a touch of longing for my hip mom days.
I also couldn't help but reflect on how my perspective has changed. When Phil was 13 months old I was hoping, praying, encouraging, prodding, anything to get him to walk! I had a newborn and a not-yet-toddler and I was dying for one of them to be able to help me with the trek from our bungalow to the car parked down the stairs on the street below. Or get into the high chair by himself. Anything. NEED A LITTLE HELP HERE! And not just as a toddler, poor Phil being my oldest has received a lot of pressure from me over his eight short years on earth to do all kinds of things on his own and have adult level reasoning skills. Before he was three he was a big brother twice. Since he is RELATIVELY larger than his baby brothers, sometimes I can forget how little he truly is. Something about being in a house with just your tiny people can make it very possible to lose that perspective of their size in the grand scheme of things. I'm guilty of losing perspective of my own size in the grand scheme, too! One look up at the sky usually cures that. And for my kids, usually it takes hearing their small voice on the phone or looking at them from a distance at the playground to gain that sense of small. Every single one of these guys can still count their age in mere double digit months. I've been alive for over 400! It's hard to put too much on them when I think about it that way. I have found myself growing more tender as I have transitioned from the desperate years of early toddler parenting, and especially so since the birth of Noah. I've learned that small kids means I need a smaller agenda, and I need to trim down the number of things I say I can do and the number of places I say I can be. I have also learned that I can't project too much worry about their future on their tiny behaviors. He won't need me to push him on the swing forever. It's just small stuff, all those things. . .the potty training and wiping your own tush and pacifiers cutting your own food and not spilling the milk at every meal.
So, yesterday I asked the big kids if I could go outside and push them on the swings. They didn't need it, but boy did they love it. I've also found myself giving more piggy back rides even though they could practically give me one. Reading more picture books, even though they can read themselves. Listening to the sweet, small sound of their little boy voices and soaking it in, even though I have no idea what minecraft-y thing or whatever they are talking about. I can't go back and be more gentle four years ago, but I can be the kind of mom I want to be now.
When the kids got home from school that day, Phil and Josh ran off to build Legos and Daniel and were enjoying some end of summer cantaloupe at the kitchen table with Noah.
"You know, D. I've been thinking a lot about what you said this morning. About Noah?"
Daniel seemed flattered. "Really, Mommy? Yeah, well, I just wanted to let you know. You know, crazy mommy and all."
"Yes, you really had a point." I said as we looked at Noah. "He is pretty darn big!"
"Yeah, look at his legs!!" Daniel laughed and Noah started laughing, too. "Hey, maybe you should pick me up, Mommy!"
So I picked D up and plopped him on my hip by the kitchen stove, just like we did in the old days. We giggled and looked at ourselves in the mirror. Unfortunately, as Daniel pointed out, he looked only slightly less ridiculous than Noah.
I told him he wasn't heavy at all. I'd pick him up any day.
A week ago as we ate a lazy vacation breakfast at the cottage kitchen table, I casually mentioned to the boys that they would be starting school, you know, in like a week. The response was less than spectacular. "Don't even tell me that, Mommy," said Phil, groaning and covering his head.
"Yes, Mommy, please don't bring that up again," Daniel said as he looked at me with a combination of terror and disdain.
"So, do you want me to just, like, wake you up next Wednesday and tell you it's time for school?"
"Yeah, that works."
"Yeah, let's do that."
Hmmmph. I looked at Paul with eyebrows raised and we sighed and gave a little shrug. We were a little bummed that our kids weren't more excited for school, but who could blame them after a carefree and unstructured summer of Legos and bare feet and silly old fashioned fun? Phil had already told me he was nervous and I know Daniel is not the hugest fan of all of the work that happens once the yellow bus drops you off, and I have to admit I really, really miss the kids when they are gone. Something about having them all here, even when they are completely wild and crazy, just makes me feel complete. Since I had mixed emotions, too, I decided not to mention too much about it (Denial!! My favorite! It's not just a river in Africa! It's a real place! Where I live!) but Monday was open house night which required us to actually GO to the school and visit their classroom.
But that's when the magic happened. I could feel the energy shift as we pulled into the parking lot Monday night. The boys were pressed against their respective windows and excitedly waving at friends they recognized. They were out of the van in a hot second and halfway across the parking lot before I reminded them that they needed to get their booties back over to the car and get their school supplies. Philip and Daniel floated into the school on a cloud despite the weight of their sacks o' crayons and glue sticks. We rounded the first corner and they had already run into a friend, and they could barely be pulled away. They waved and hugged and high-fived and half ran down the hall to their room, and when they walked in the door it only got better. They bypassed their new teacher to go straight to their desks where the excited shouting began. "LOOK! Josh is at my table!!"
"Look there's Laureli! And Jackson! And Jacob."
"Oh, Ben is going to be here, and Zach, and Tessa!"
They were going around the room as fast as their little feet could take them reading the nametags on the desks. By the time they finally got around to saying hello to their new teacher, there was a complete transformation of the boys from the week before. They were, dare I say it, excited??!?!! In the van on the way home, Daniel said, "Mommy, how many more days until I get to go to school? I can't WAIT to see my friends."
"All of our friends we know are in our class! Like, 90% of them! I didn't know they would all be here!" Phil chimed in.
Two little soon-to-be second graders could barely fall asleep last night and were giddy over their breakfast cereal planning their first day. The big question had been answered. They would have a friend. I didn't even realize that was the question until I saw the shift in their perspective, but once I did I totally got it! How many times in my life have I had that feeling, too? How many times has my stomach done flip-flops in the car, or have I hesitated at the door, or walked into a room with butterflies and scanned it for a friendly place to sit? How many of us just want to know we'll have a friend when we get there? I had to take advantage of this moment of revelation.
"Boys," I said, as they shoved cereal and bananas in their faces. "I want you to do me a favor today. I know you are really excited to go to school and see your friends, but today I want you to look for someone who may not have a friend and make them feel welcome, Okay?"
They barely looked up from their conversation, and I didn't want them to miss the point. SOOOOO, I kept on going in my droning on mom-style.
"You know how excited you are to go to school today? And see your friends? Well, there are some kiddos who are not excited to go to school today. They might even be crying this morning. They don't know if they will have a friend or not because New Britton is a new place for them. I want you to be that friendly person."
At this point I had their attention. They looked a little mystified that someone might be crying before school, so I told them, "You know, Mommy cried on the bus on the way to school her first day."
Now I REALLY had their attention. "Really, Mommy??" said Phil. "How old were you??"
"Um, I was in high school"
"WHATTTTT??? You cried and you were a TEENAGER!!!?"
"Yep, even high schoolers feel nervous if they don't know anyone. I was really scared to go to a new school and wondered if I would fit in or find any friends. I looked out the window of the bus and cried the whole way to school."
At this point kids minds = BLOWN, so Paul chimed in, too. "I was so nervous on my first day of high school, too. I was a new kid and I didn't know anyone! I mean, I didn't cry like Mommy but I was so, so nervous."
"So we really want you guys to be good friends! Think about those kids who are crying or scared to go to school. Look for someone who is lonely and reach out to them and make them feel welcome today."
"Okay, okay, Mommy," they chimed as they went right back to cereal and bananas and second grade boy recess planning.
They were thrilled to get on the bus. Thrilled to see their friends. Because isn't that what makes everything worthwhile? Friendly faces? People who know us and care about us? The big world is a much less scary place with a friendly smile to light the way. We'll see when they get off the bus in a few minutes if they found anyone to be that light to. I'll never forget the people who where that light to me when I was the new kid at school, which is probably why I am the first person to smother any new person in a group with my friendliness. . .sorry, new people. I can't help it. I still remember how much it meant to me. On the first day of school, I always say a little prayer for the new kids. The lonely kids. The scared kids. The missing their mama like crazy kids. The "Will I have a friend?" kids.
Dear God, please bring those sweet kiddos some friends today. Help us all to be a friend, and make the world a little less lonely together.