Letting go a little may be the best way to hold onto happiness
I sliced my hand opening a can of baby formula — a deep, thin cut across the meat of my right index finger that bled and bled.
All I could find in the cabinets was a Dora the Explorer Band-Aid, which wasn’t big enough, so I wrapped a Bob the Builder Band-Aid around the other side and stuck them together.
It was early on a Saturday morning, and I was standing in a kitchen strewn with toys from a week’s worth of attempting to entertain the kids. I was groggy; my youngest son was whining, and I as I stood there trying not to bleed into his drink I had a flash of realization: I am really tired of this.
I have been home with my children pretty much all the time since April 2001, and I am really tired.
In 2000, I returned to work when my firstborn, Jack, was 4 months old. I tried to juggle him and my job and found that I couldn’t, so I went to a (very) part-time work schedule that remained in place through his little-boy years and then through the birth of his brother, Ben, who is now 19 months old.
My oldest was a clingy, intense creature who had what I am still convinced is a nervous breakdown when he was 3 years old and I put him in a twice-weekly parents-day-out program. He was 4 and in real (as in, expensive) preschool before he started to get comfortable with leaving me.
His little brother is another story. The kid won’t even hold my hand. He leaves my side any time I set him down, and I spend most of my life chasing him while he runs top-speed, arms up, leaning precariously forward and hooting with glee.
In the afternoons, when we pick up Jack from summer camp, I have to wrestle Ben out of the classroom, off the playground and into the car. It’s a spectacle my 6-year-old finds amusing.
"Wow, Ben is really strong, isn’t he?" Jack says, flashing a gap-toothed smile as I wrap his kicking, shrieking little brother in a bear hug for the interminable walk to our station wagon.
That little boy is ready to go, and I am ready to let him.
My friends theorize that I made the oldest one clingy by holding onto him in a new-parent panic, while the youngest is off like a shot because I’m just plain tired of holding on. It could be true. Honestly, I don’t care why things are turning out the way they are. Maybe I did it to them (the first rule of parenting: the mother always gets the blame), or maybe it’s just a matter of hard-wired temperamental differences. Maybe it’s a little of both.
All I know for sure is that my years at home have taught me what I need to know about spending all day, every day with small children: It’s transcendently wonderful, really hard, often frustrating, profoundly exhausting, and some of us just can’t take more than about five years of it.
My oldest son starts first grade in two weeks. At the same time, his brother starts a part-time toddler program five mornings a week. My mother, who has watched me go from giddy-at-home mommy to please-somebody-help-me crazy lady in the last five years, asked me why I am putting my youngest in school only mornings.
"I think he’d do OK if he stayed until 3 o’clock," she said. "He’d probably really like it."
"As soon as he turns 2 in January," I said, "I’ll look into it."
My mother shrugged. My mother, who earned advanced degrees and wrote her dissertation while she raised us, and who loves to remind me that she did not stop her life (as I have) just because she had kids.
"I’m sure he’ll do fine," she said. "And you can spend more time on your work. It’ll be good for you."
Yes it will. And since I have my mother’s blessing on this arrangement, I’ll just blame her if the kids are miserable, and I am wracked with guilt.
(The second rule of parenting: When your kids blame you, blame your mother.)