Last night, for whatever reason, I laid next to Stephen and made him pause Breaking Bad to watch an old video of Valor on my phone. It was from almost exactly a year ago. Hearing his snarly, raspy voice (this was before his adenoids were removed and he sounded like an idling diesel truck) and watching his big, expressive eyes take in his own reflection on my screen nearly knocked the wind out of me. It felt like a punch to the gut, quick and sudden and unexpected. To see, so plainly, how much he has grown and changed and learned all in just one short, quick year, shocked me. Because that year felt like torture at times, and it certainly never felt as though it was going by quickly.
After that video, we just gave in, shut the TV off, and followed the rabbit hole for another hour. There are so many clips of me and the boys just at home, doing the same things we did every day. Most of the videos I remember clearly taking; I remember why their shirt was stained or where I was sitting or the trip to Target I was planning to take once the other one woke up from nap. And I remember, too, that most of those days I was just trying to make it to bedtime. Most of those days were painful- sciatica during pregnancy and two toddlers who just wanted Mommy to play trains or cars on the floor 24/7. Most of those days were overwhelming- hauling two toddlers out, into the van and then out, into some store, only to get more crap to haul all while navigating ice and snow and boots that didn’t stay on tiny feet. Most of those days were smeared with just an all-encompassing feeling of failure and let down -all I was doing was saying ‘no, Mommy can’t’ to ten million requests a day, even simple ones like laying in Valor’s bunk and cuddling because floor and baby and pain.
Those days felt a lot of things, but they did not feel fast.
That season was hard for us. We wanted to be in Thailand but weren’t. Stephen wanted to be a stay at home dad with the boys, but I sure as heck can’t make enough money for us to live off, so he wasn’t. I wanted to enjoy the cold and be happy at home with the kids, but mostly I wasn’t. He was working really, really long days and he would come home to a weepy wife more days than not.
Super Bowl Sunday was a particularly low point in my emotional and physical stress of that year. And it’s why a week later I drank Castor oil to help Haven GTFO. Anyway, I don’t even remember what Stephen and I got into an argument about (he SWEARS it was over the brand of chips he bought at Costco but that was a different, equally valid, fight) but I was so upset, I stormed out of the house weeping, got in our minivan, drove 1.9 miles away, parked my minivan, and cried in front of some stranger’s house all while getting texts like I’m not sure what is happening right now and I believe your feelings are real and I’m sorry I make jokes when I shouldn’t. That night, after my prodigal return, I was sitting on the couch eating, I kid not, an entire pound of melted cheddar cheese on like seven tortilla chips, still weeping, watching YouTube clips of Lady Gaga’s halftime performance. The next day Stephen nonchalantly said something about me eating said pound of cheese which was met with a rage stare and the words too soon, buddy.
If it wasn’t the emotional zoo shows at night, it was the Fires of Fury Directed at Small Children matinées during the day. I swear to Baby Jesus and His Daddy G, I worked so hard not to just start yelling at the boys the second they woke me up. Most days, I failed. Whether my patience was low and I felt like crap or they really did endure a two-month possession from rabid animals/the actual devil, I have no idea. But I do know those last two months were rough, and every time I was mad or impatient or rude or just not being the mom I wanted to be, I felt even more like shit.
Hence, the tears at night. Maybe that will be Shepherd’s memoir name. Tears at Night, the Shepherd Kleinjung Story.
It was rough, is what I’m saying. And I was sure, at any given moment, that I was ruining Shepherd and Valor for life. Ruining. Stephen and I making the choice to have another baby would actually destroy their brains and make them assholes and have social problems and attachment issues and no friends and it would all be our (mostly my) fault. I mean, it sounds crazy, but in the moment, it’s real. In whatever season, the weight of being the right kind of parent for your kids and the guilt and shame of not being able to be that is too much to bear.
So, last night, watching those iPhone videos taken smack in the middle of the muck, it hit me how fine, how more than fine, how great everyone is. I felt a crazy desperation to time travel back to myself, cup my own face, and lovingly say, chill the f out. Because kids, little kids like mine, age like dogs. Each year is this insane amount of time and so much happens. A week feels like forever and a week of potty training or sleeping through the night or starting school or any number of things can make it feel like a gamechanger. But in reality? It’s a week. Seven measly little days. So, while the last couple hard months of pregnancy felt like forever and like it’s all the kids would ever know or remember, after a week of something else, a new normal set in just as quick.
At the time those videos were taken, my reality was that I was ruining my kids by subjecting them to this new addition. Now? Haven is like their right arm. When she’s not around they’re asking for her. When strangers at restaurants tease the boys and say they’ll keep her, they get mad. When she’s doing her pterodactyl scream for more food, Valor takes chewed up food from his mouth and tries to shove it in hers. Love. We as a unit are the best we’ve ever been as the five of us. We all made it through that season just fine.
And so, as we’re smack dab in the middle of more muck- yet another transition in which I am confident I am ruining my children and they will grow up and hate me and not have happy marriages or make reasonable choices as adults, I made a list of things to prove I’m not actually messing everything up. Maybe it will help to remind you, too, that it’s not as bad as you may think it is.
- My kids still want to be with me. This is massive. Let’s suss this out: if I was actually breaking my children’s brains, they would slowly begin to show less compassion and affection. So even on the worst days with the tantrums that are so loud and crazy, I think it surely has to be a joke, the fact that they still want to cuddle to calm down says something to me: I’m doing at least this one thing right. I am still their home. I am their constant, and if they know that and display that knowledge through dependence and reliance, then we’re going to make it just fine.
- I thought I broke them already. All I have to do is read the above or think about any number of moments or instances I assumed would ruin everything forever. Clearly it didn’t. So either my kids are super resilient or I’m not totally screwing us all. Or a bit of both, which is cool too.
- They have fun. It doesn’t matter where we are or what we’re doing; it doesn’t matter how big of a fit was just thrown or if they got into big trouble a moment ago; it doesn’t matter if they have friends or parks or puzzles or sandboxes. They have fun. They might not be laughing all the time (see literally every reference to yelling or tantrums), but there are many moments of sheer joy and fun throughout the day. I’m not a therapist, but I feel like if we were destroying their lives they probably wouldn’t lose their shit over Daddy Dinosaur or Mommy Monster games.
- They talk to me. Even when Shepherd has hot tears running down his chubby cheeks, he still manages to tell me something, “Mommy, I feel so fusksrated at you right now.” Not only does it make me smile because accidental swears, but it shows me he wants to understand what is happening inside his brain and he wants to share that with us. Any time either one of them give us anything, “I’m so mad!” “I don’t like this!” “I don’t want this!”, we try and use it as an opportunity to crack open their little hearts a bit more and connect. Who knows if they really understand what they’re saying, the point is that they’re saying anything. I’ll take whatever they give me.
- My kids still want to be with me. I keep coming back to this, and you should, too. There’s something so tender, so sweet, so primal about how they need a safe place inside someone else. And we get to be that. I love that my boys know no matter what, my arms are open. I will lay in a semi-pissy smelling bunk bed for as long as it takes for those after-tear hiccups to dissipate. It doesn’t matter what we face, where we are, or what’s going on- if they know we are for them, I’m 98% sure we’ll all make it. And them wanting to be with me? It shows they get that.
Watching those videos and spending that hour down the rabbit hole of reminiscing was the not so gentle reminder I need in this season: it’s never as bad as I think it is, I’m never doing as bad as I think I am. I am a good mom who makes good, hard choices for my kids. And perfection, whatever image of that I have in my head, is never the end goal. Children who know beyond a shadow of a doubt they’re loved? That’s the goal. That’s my end game.
So, next time you’re sure you’re messing it all up and ruining everything, ask yourself when the last time was you thought that exact thing. And then look at your people. Did it really ruin them? Chances are not. And then, if you’re not pregnant and don’t have sciatica, climb into a (maybe) smelly bunk and cuddle. Snuggle as long as you all need it and remind yourself to wash the sheets. Eventually.