Standing in a ridiculously slow line for the snack bar at a ridiculously over-priced and over-crowded indoor waterpark, I take slow even breaths as the cashiers try quite unsuccessfully to figure out how to remove french fries from an order and replace them with potato chips. To distract myself I watch a mini-swarm of people rushing to make sure they are under the giant bucket that tips every 4 minutes and dumps a zillion tons of liquid joy on happy shrieking children. Over on my right are a group of the water park’s most privileged–those with a private “cabana” who can sit back and view the chaos with an adult beverage in hand.
In front of me I see a mom. She is standing at the snack bar counter–blocking it actually–and hovering over a tray in front of her. Three littles are clinging to her legs, stretching the elastic on her faded bathing suit as they whine with hunger and exhaustion. She is checking their burgers to make sure there is ketchup-only on one, nothing green on the next, and extra pickles on the third. As she turns to hand drinks down to her children she realizes she is preventing anyone else from reaching the counter. She smiles sheepishly and picks up the food. Attempting to balance that tray against the force of toddlers ramming her legs she slowly moves away, hoping against hope that she will actually find time to eat the wilted salad in a plastic container that she ordered for herself before she has to leave the park.
I tell her she’s doing a good job, and she smiles tiredly, seeing me with my bigger and mostly self-sufficient kids who have run up to give me their orders before dashing back to the giant bucket.
“That will be nice,” she sighs, watching them skip away as I stand alone.Then she heads toward some chairs, using her legs to corral two littles in front of her while the third attaches herself to her mama’s leg and gets slowly dragged to her dining destination.
The truth? Well, yes. It is nice in a lot of ways. I don’t miss choking down cold soggy nasty food because I was so busy feeding children I didn’t have time for my own dinner. I have no sadness regarding a lack of diapers and/or nighttime accidents discovered warm against my side. I don’t miss worrying that various parts of my anatomy were hanging out because little hands are pulling on my wardrobe in oh-so-inappropriate ways. I actually enjoy plopping myself down in a sticky plastic lounge chair and watching my charges run around having the time of their lives and waving to me occasionally as they pass. It’s fun to send them to their own bathroom to get ready while I take a private shower and then go out to a decent place for dinner. I enjoy their conversations, their perspectives, their actually-kind-of-funny jokes. This is a sweet time, for sure!
But….and there’s always a but don’t you know...I feel a surprising pang of sadness when this mom says that to me. Why? Well, because I remember that stage of life so very well:
–I remember watching in shock as my 1 year old flipped an entire carton of eggs out of my cart at Walmart while my 4 and 7 year olds wrestled not-so-playfully in the aisle behind me….
–I remember building an entire living room fort with one arm while simultaneously breast-feeding a colicky baby….
–I remember people staring at me when had to leave my warm meal in Panera and exit with a shrieking toddler, a loudly sobbing child and an angrily protesting eldest child…
–I remember trading stories with other moms about how to survive on zero sleep and crumbled Cheerios as we chugged coffee to make it to nap time….
I’d like to sit down next to this mother, take her hand in mine and tell her…I remember. But since that might scare her and she truly doesn’t have time to listen to me babble, here’s what I would say if I had the chance:
Dear sweet hungry mama,
You are in a hard stage. In a way I am not sad to be past that; but as I sit alone in my chair at the water park….I am sad to be past that. You may look at my solitude with some jealousy, but I look at your consuming purpose with wistful envy. Sure, I am still needed by my kids, but in such a different capacity. Instead of being the slightly-suffocated center of their universe as you are, I have become more of a home base. A place from where they can flit and then return when they are hungry or need money or new basketball shoes. I love my independence and my independent kids…but sometimes it’s a little hard to comprehend that these babies who needed me more than life now prefer their friends’ company to mine.
Then I wonder, is there another mom looking at me the same way I’m looking at you? A mother of grown kids watching me smile at my giggling brood run past?
Maybe she is feeling relief thinking about how she’s not sad to be past the hormonal storms of her children’s puberty…
Maybe she is thinking about how she’s not sad to be past the ripping chaos of a precious son trying to decide if he’s a boy or a man and raging at you because he’s stuck in between…
Maybe she is thinking how much she misses the late night heart-talks and hearing a man-son say, “Just rub my shoulders”…
Maybe she is remembering the bittersweet mixture of pride and heartbreak from letting go of her daughter’s hand and watching her baby navigate life all on her own…
I understand your envy, dear mom of precious little hurricanes. I understand why you look longingly at my empty lap and perfectly arranged cover-up. I understand….but I want you to know that my heart feels a startling ache when I watch you scoop up a crying toddler because only your arms and presence can take away the hurt. I wish I still possessed that magical mom power to take away my child’s pain. I also suspect that moms of grown children watch me struggle to keep my head from spinning as my teenagers roll their eyes at me and stalk away….and feel the same startling ache wishing their ducklings were all safely under their roof one more time.
So, exhausted and overdone mama of little ones, I will tell you what I am trying to tell myself: take notice of the times that make you smile, and hold on to those moments.
(Now listen. You don’t have to pretend to be happy when your toddler shrieks “NO” and throws her fork with sniper-like precision right into your nose. Those are the points where you can find gratitude in the fact that the ARE growing up!)
Do everything in your power to imprint the feeling of those chubby fingers pressed into the sides of your face as she stares into your eyes….becasue a time is coming (and this is both a promise and a threat) where she would rather lick the bottom of a shoe than touch you in public. Try and savor the sweetness…bask in it. Go ahead and sing “Country Roads” one more time before bed…because pretty soon your son will ask you to say “good night” from the door to his bedroom.
In turn, I will try to burn into my memory how it feels to still rest my chin on the soft wavy hair of my pre-teen’s head, because it won’t be long before he will be 8 inches taller than me. I will drink an extra cup of coffee in anticipation of the fact that my son will go all day without talking to me…but when I say I’m going to bed at 10:30 he will suddenly want to chat about life. I’m pretty sure that in a few years I’m going to miss those late-night talks more than I can possibly imagine.
So let’s make a deal, sweet stressed-out water park mom. How about we promise to deliberately search through the daily chaos and pluck out the beauty? Time will pass and things will change–that’s life, after all. We will both look back and miss things from different stages of our lives. While we can’t help bittersweetness that comes from change, what we can try to prevent is regret. Let’s try to appreciate the beauty we purposefully find in each stage….so that when we DO look back there might be the sadness that they don’t fit in the crook of our arms anymore…not the sadness that we didn’t take time to hold them.
Hang in there….these crazy exhausting days will tumble past faster than you think. There’s a reason the saying “Time Flies” has become cliché, after all. Please know that it’s ok to eat your dinner first sometimes, and that the day is coming when your child will not freak out because there is a drop of mustard on their burger. (Probably.) I also want you to realize that the “free moms” of older kids you might envy a bit might just be feeling the same way about you. Now I’m going back to my hotel room to shower without kids banging on the door; then I will crawl into my own bed without little feet massaging my backbone all night. I’ll probably truthfully sleep pretty well…but I may dream of a little head full of soft downy hair curled up on my shoulder.