I was nine months pregnant one hot June Sunday when I walked out of church with an elderly member of our congregation. She had raised ten children herself and inquired as to how I was doing in the heat. I told her I was scheduled for a C-section in three days and she shook her head at “technology today.” Then she asked, “What number is this one anyway?” It took me a minute to understand that she was referring to what number child I was due to deliver. I told her it was my third and she said, “That’s the back breaker honey, good luck!” before ambling off to her car.
I puzzled at her remark, but a few weeks after I returned home from the hospital with my new baby, I understood exactly what she meant by "back breaker." I have never been as exhausted as I was in those days. For some reason going from two kids to three kids was an exponential jump rather than simple addition. Suddenly I didn’t have enough hands or laps or food or time or energy. And it certainly hasn’t let up. I don’t know how she managed ten. I was done at three.
Overwhelmed by three children with constant demands, I frequently experienced episodes of panic when I realized I was missing one, whether we were in the grocery store, the back yard, or even strapped in carseats ready to head somewhere. It was hard to keep track of them. There were three of them and only one of me. They were busy, busy kids. Their mouths, legs, and minds were in constant motion. I am weary just remembering.
They are still busy. The problem now isn’t that I don’t know where they are, it's that I haven’t managed to master the skill of being in three places at once. There have been multiple days this month when one child needed to be on one side of town while another needed to be on the opposite side, and the third waited elsewhere for a ride home.
Leaving the dentist’s office today, the receptionist, by now an old friend, asked after the kids. I told her they were fine, and then launched into my complaints about the hours I spend in the car, the meals we eat on the run, the impossible task of taking care of everyone. She raised four kids of her own, so she nodded knowingly and murmured words of sympathy. But driving home, I mentally chastised myself for complaining.
These days are precious. They just don’t feel like it right now. Watching the college catalogs pile up on the side board, I know my days are numbered. Soon they will be gone and no one will need a ride anywhere. I’ll look at the cat and reflexively offer her a ride, and then I’ll sit down at this computer and ponder my empty nest.
I’m trying to keep the impending disbursement in the forefront of my mind so that I don’t take these days for granted, or heaven forbid, wish them away. I am trying harder to listen to my children as we share hours together in the car rather than complain about their radio selections. I may feel besieged by all that I am trying to cram into a day, but they have their own stresses. I remember how tough it can be to be a teenager.
My 13-year-old daughter, exhausted and hungry, surveyed the refrigerator then slammed it shut and burst in to tears. “There is no food and I’m so hungry!” she wailed. I wanted to point out the fact that the shelves are brimming, the cheese drawer won’t even close, and there are three kinds of breads and cookies stacked up on the counter. But I didn’t. Arguing with her wouldn’t have fixed her problem. She looked at me waiting for me to dispute her claims. I shrugged and sighed. She went to bed. And there was peace until the morning.
More and more I’m learning to bite my tongue and let them say what they think instead of pointing out the flaws in their opinions. It is my habit to squash their complaints with my own solutions and if I have none, to distract them with reminders regarding chores, upcoming events, obligations, or bedtime. I do much better the few times I quell my reactions. There is less eye rolling, accusations of apathy, and slamming of doors when I wait for them to sort out their thoughts or exhaust their emotions. Sadly, shutting up and listening is not my strong suit. I'll probably have it down by the time they graduate college, but I doubt the dog will care.
I’ve always related to them in terms of care taking. “This is what you need to do…” or “It’s your turn to…..” or “We have to leave in five minutes….” As they begin to look me eye to eye, we must renegotiate some of the terrain. They can and should do most things for themselves now, and the water is smoothest when I get out of the way. They don't always do things the way I would have them done or when I'd like them done. And sometimes I can't help but comment on that fact.
I haven’t become the perfect mother, not even close. I still harass them on occasion and throw my share of guilt around when necessary. But I’m trying to make these last years be less about nagging and more about loving. It’s not easy, especially when I find chocolate chip cookies mashed in to the sofa. Awareness is the first step to change. And I’m keenly aware that my days of being outnumbered are numbered.